• inflammable •
in-flæm-ê-bêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Capable of igniting or burning. 2. Easily angered, incited, or made worse.
Notes: Few words are confused with their own antonyms, but today's Good Word is an example of one that is. Widespread misperception of the prefix "in-" in inflammable as a negative prefix in the 60s convinced the petroleum and chemistry industries to replace this older term (1605) with a younger synonym, flammable (1813), on their product labels and transport vehicles. The noun for this Good Word is inflammability and the adverb, inflammably.
In Play: This word is used most often in reference to petroleum based chemicals: "Well, Smokey, maybe it wasn't such a good idea to remove spots from your shirt with an inflammable liquid then sit down and light up a cigarette." However, its meaning easily extends to metaphorical flaming: "We try not to discuss controversial issues with Adam Bahm because he has such an inflammable character."
Word History: Today's word comes from Medieval Latin inflammabilis, an adjective derived from inflammare "to set on fire". The prefix is not the negative in- "un-" of incomplete and incorrect but the preposition in. This verb is made up of in "in" + flammare "flame, blaze", the root of which is flamma "a blaze, flame". Flamma is obviously the origin of English flame, borrowed from French after that language smoothed it off a bit. The initial fl- in this word actually comes from an earlier root, bh(e)l-, which emerged in such Germanic words in English as blaze, bleach, and blank. Its original meaning was apparently "white", the meaning it has in Russian belyi. (Today's Good Word is a hot suggestion from the cool Eric Berntson, who raised it in alphaDictionary's easily inflammable Alpha Agora)