FLAMMABLE/INFLAMMABLE: capable of burning

flammableFlammable is a word which means that something is capable of burning.  If you have ever followed tractor-trailer trucks on a major highway, you will see signs like the one to the right attached to the rear of the truck.   I’m not sure what the intent of the sign is, but it tells me that I want to pass this truck and get as far in front of it as possible as soon as possible.   There are too many stories in the news about chain-reaction accidents in which a car is rammed into such a truck, and the whole thing goes up in flames.  No thanks.  I want to be cremated when I die, but there’s no sense in hastening the event.

My question is, if flammable means capable of burning, why is it that there is another word, inflammable, which means the very same thing?   I have also seen signs like this on trucks.   Doesn’t it mean the same thing?  I find that very confusing.

Well, as it turns out, they both do mean the same thing.   Both words mean that something in the truck is capable of burning, and that extreme caution should be used.  Never having been clear about that, I have always done the same thing … I pass the truck as quickly as possible and put it in my rear view mirror.

In checking the history of these words it is made clear that both come from the same root word, which is close to the great culinary word, flambé.  This is used when you douse an already great food with brandy or some other liquor, light it on fire, and serve it flaming.

It turns out that over the years the word inflammable has repeatedly been confused with the terms unflammable, or non-flammable, leading people to think they were safe.  They weren’t.  In fact, if a truck or other object is marked  with the word inflammable it would not be wise to light a match or make a spark.

I was reminded of these words when reading about the tragedy in Kansas City yesterday when a leaking gas line allowed natural gas to accumulate in a very popular restaurant.   It was a time bomb waiting to go off, and, sure enough, it exploded, causing injury and death to the patrons and workers at the restaurant.   It is for that very reason that a number of years ago it was decreed that an odor had to be injected into natural gas in order to make it detectable prior to a tragedy.   Unfortunately, people ignore the odor, or simply think that calling the gas company is sufficient to reduce the danger.    What is called for is evacuation.  Sometimes we are too casual about incidents we sense are problematic.

Because the term inflammable is often mistaken for non-flammable it has become customary to eliminate its use and to favor the term flammable, which is much clearer.  I strongly concur.

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