Date: Tue, 21 Apr 1998 10:36:13 +0000
From: Victoria Neufeldt
Subject: Re: (In)flammable

Don, I don't agree with your analysis of the prescriptive issue of
'inflammable' vs 'flammable' (as distinct from the question of
etymology). Probably any native speaker of English would understand
'inflammable' correctly, but there is a distinct possibility that a
non-native speaker could misinterpret the 'in-' as a negative prefix,
since that is by far the more common use of this element; and because
the consequences of misinterpretation are potentially lethal, it is
important to use an unambiguous form, such as 'flammable,' for all
public labels. This "campaign," which isn't just Australian, but at
least North American (both Canada and US) and British as well, does
seem to have been successful. Even in everyday language,
'inflammable' is not nearly as common as it used to be.

The word 'flammable' goes back to the early 19th century;
and 'flammability' is about 200 years older. They probably developed
"naturally," alongside the corresponding 'in-' forms, but the safety
issue seems to be a pretty recent one. Quotations in the OED
referring to the problem of ambiguity date from the late 1950s.


On 21 April, Donald Lance wrote:

> >There are two _in-_ prefixes, one being a negator and the other referring
> >to 'enabling'. So 'inflammable' refers to an object consisting of a
> >substance that may be 'inflamed' when subjected to a heat source above a
> >certain temperature -- though this is not the most common use of
> >'inflame'. Discussions of the inappropriateness of the term 'inflammable'
> >are typical of dicta offered by prescriptivists who don't want to bother
> >doing homework because they already know everything that anyone could
> >possibly learn about language by consulting dictionaries etc.
> DMLance