I got seriously confused the day I discovered that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Why would you even invent a new word which means exactly the same as one which already exists? Even worse, why would you make it sound like the opposite?
Maybe it is time to work out why this happened and why famous and infamous aren’t opposites either.
They Both Burn
To avoid any confusion let me start by pointing out that something which is flammable or inflammable burns easily. That rag dipped in kerosene? Flammable. A pot filled with hot cooking oil? Inflammable. A really cheap pair of jogging bottoms? Probably flammable and inflammable under the right conditions. The reason why both of these words exist can be traced back to the roaring 20s. The dudes from the National Fire Protection Association are the people we have to blame for this confusing situation. In their rush to protect the nation from fire they encouraged the use of the word flammable. The idea behind this was that the existing word inflammable was seen as sounding too much like something that can’t burn. The “in” in inflammable comes from the Latin preposition and doesn’t mean “not” but your average guy on the street in the 1920s didn’t know that, I guess. The opposite of both is non-flammable.
The case of famous and infamous is a bit different. As with flammable and inflammable they sound like opposites but aren’t. However, in this case they don’t mean the same thing either. We all know that famous means extremely well known but infamous also means well known, just in a different way. If you are described as being famous then it doesn’t really make any judgement on the reasons for your fame but most people will probably view you in a positive light. If you are called infamous then you are probably well known for being unspeakably evil and horrible. Infamous can also be used in a more light hearted way, relating to some sort of product or service which was notoriously bad or unpopular, like the infamous Sinclair C5 or the infamously bad 80s clothing trends.
Famously Flammable or Infamously Inflammable?
So, if you devised the first ever fireproof couch then members of the National Fire Protection Association would carry you shoulder high down the street and your invention would be famously non-flammable. On the other hand, if your invention was something which was meant to burn but didn’t then it would be a different story. Your ridiculously non-burning matches or cigarettes would go down in history as infamously non–flammable. To be infamously inflammable it would need to be something which wasn’t meant to burn but did, like if your fireproof couches spontaneously combusted whenever someone sat on one. To be famously flammable it would have to be something which was meant to burn and did exactly that in a memorable kind of way, like a giant torch. See? It’s easy.
What other confusing words have you puzzled over?