Words worth distinguishing – and not

Even though inflammable is a lovely word with the authority of history on its side, we should probably give it up.

Ann Wang/Reuters
Buddhist pilgrims light candles around the Golden Rock or Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda to celebrate the full moon festival in Kyaikto, in Mon state, Myanmar, on Oct. 24, 2018.

If you are sick to your stomach, are you feeling “nauseous” or “nauseated”? Are the organic cotton pajamas “flammable” or “inflammable”? 

People can have strong feelings about these word pairs, insisting that one usage is correct and the other “irritating.” What are the differences in meaning here? Are they worth preserving, or should we admit that English has evolved and move on?

Nauseous derives from the Latin word nauseosus, meaning “to cause nausea.” In the most rigid view, the English word thus means “repellent, offensive, causing nausea,” and using it any other way is “an abomination,” as someone once confided to me at a party. If you are sick, in this view, you must say, “I am nauseated,” since “I feel nauseous” means that you believe you are repulsive.

Etymology is not destiny, however, and this distinction was never as firm as sticklers like to make out. When nauseous first appeared in English in the 17th century, it was also used to describe people with weak stomachs, defined in one of the first English dictionaries as “disposed to vomit.” Time has sanctioned this second definition: It has been used for “sick, suffering from nausea” since the 1800s.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage calls the nauseous/nauseated rule a “myth” and claims that nauseous is now used for “feeling sick” twice as often as for “inspiring sickness.” It is time to let this fight go.

Though people may judge you but will not misunderstand you if you say “I feel nauseous,” flammable/inflammable really is confusing. The words seem to be opposites, like combustible and incombustible. The prefix “in- “ often means “not,” as incombustible and incapable demonstrate, so it might seem that inflammable should mean “not burnable.” But the word was created from a different sense of in-, meaning “in or into,” and inflammable thus means the opposite: “capable of being ignited.” Inflammable was alone for 200 years until, in an attempt to avoid confusion that only increased it, flammable was coined in 1813. 

In the early 20th century in efforts to increase public safety, fire safety officials debated what best to call things that easily go up in flames. They decided that inflammable was too likely to be misinterpreted and decided that flammable should be used for “combustible” and nonflammable for “incombustible.” 

Even though inflammable is a lovely word with the authority of history on its side, we should probably give it up. It is vital that we know immediately whether a gas is likely to explode near a flame or not, whether we have bought fire-
resistant children’s clothing or not. By the time we remember that inflammable doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, it might be too late.

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