There are some words which look like the same word but mean different things. Cleave can mean “stick together” or “separate into two or more parts”, for example. And there are other words which look different but mean the same. We’ve already come across “relative” and “relation” on this blog, which have one meaning which is the same, and “spelled” or “spelt”.
This pair is another that lots of people have asked me to write about. I think that most people do know that there’s something funny about them …
Because they mean exactly the same thing. As the Oxford dictionaries define them:
Flammable – easily set on fire
Inflammable – easily set on fire! This one originates from the Latin “in-” prefix meaning into, thereby intensifying the word. Not just easily set on fire; VERY easily set on fire. But I wouldn’t use this one as an intensified version of flammable. They just mean the same.
The word containing the negative or opposite idea, i.e. NOT easily set on fire, is non-flammable.
Oxford prefers the use of flammable, for clarity.
“The label on this nightie says it’s flammable – I’d pick the non-flammable one if I were you, so we can sit together safely in front of the fire.”
You can find more troublesome pairs here.