Flame Wars

Linguists and language experts — including two of my more favorite foils, Dr. John McWhorter and Dr. Anne Curzan — tell us that a living language changes, evolves, and creates new words (or new meanings for old words) through usage. The idea is that some words, even though they are illegitimate corruptions that should never have been created (or were created through ignorance of proper usage), simply won’t go away. I doubt that this rant will change anything, but I wish at least to re-register my protest.

Let’s take a favorite example of mine, beginning with a version of the root word “inflame”. Inflammation (as a noun) is often used in its medical sense, meaning the reaction of the body to injury, or perhaps allergic or infectious reactions. If you have a skin allergy to wool, touching wool will cause the skin to become red and hot, due in part to the rush of blood to the area. Your skin has become inflamed. Used as a verb, to inflame is to stir powerful or even violent emotions; an argument that has “heated up” is said to have been inflamed.

English has a fun way of creating adjectives out of verbs by adding “-able” to them. The verb (to) drink yields the notion that something is drinkable; (to) eat becomes eatable, which is still a legitimate word, although edible is the more accepted version, deriving directly from Latin and first appearing in that form around the late 16th century. By this process, things that could become inflamed were called inflammable since the early 17th century; that which was not capable of becoming inflamed would be non-inflammable. The word that should appear on the side of a gasoline tanker truck is INFLAMMABLE.

The difficulty here is that the word we’re using begins with the letters “in”, which may constitute both a word (having various uses as a preposition, an adverb, an adjective, and even a noun [having an “in” with a particular group]) and a prefix meaning “not” or “without” — for example, the word insubstantial, meaning without substance or physicality. No doubt some poor sod stood next to the petrol lorry, saw that the contents were “inflammable”, lit up his fag, and promptly became insubstantial, the victim of prefix addiction as well as becoming another example of why smoking is dangerous to one’s health, which could have the added irony of being invaluable information.

To avoid yet more death by illiteracy, the non-word flammable came into use, as folks figure that it meant “able to be flamed.” This was followed in short order by non-flammable, which follows the sense of creating non-inflammable from inflammable, but is otherwise rather idiotic. “Flamed”, you see, is not a word either. Flame is a noun. One may “set flame” to something, meaning to apply (verb, action word) flame (noun, a thing) to it, but to “flame” something is to engage in back-formation by making a noun become a verb. As has been well noted by the Prophet Calvin (as in “and Hobbes”, Bill Watterson’s great comic), “Verbing weirds language.” I suppose it’s too much to ask bloggers to go back to saying that their post was subjected to inflamed or inflammatory language; that would take too much bandwidth, both on the Internet and in their thought processes.

Mark you, I do not claim invulnerability to the siren song of the Prefix-In-Appearance-Only. My fatal faux pas came with the word disingenuous, which comes from ingenuous (adj) meaning innocent, unsuspecting, naive. The former word refers to someone who pretends to know more than he does, rather than being genuine or sincere. Somewhere, I got it into my head that there was a word (perhaps “genuine”?) that was negated by the “in-” prefix, so that someone who was “ingenuous” was “not genuine”, thus not sincere. Oops. And I misused the word, in public, and had it recorded. Serious oops. Embarrassing, eh wot? You might say that my cheeks were inflamed. Who knew that I was inflammable?

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