Food for Thought
I remember, at sometime in my early childhood, how many big and mysterious words there were in the world. Not just words I heard adults use, and that I assumed I would someday learn the meanings of, but words that were just out there– posted on cars, buildings, billboards– waiting for me to unravel their mysteries. Reading was like a parlor trick. Comprehending was another matter.
Two words that particularly intrigued me appeared frequently on large tank-trucks. These often displayed either the word “flammable” or “inflammable,” neither of which was familiar to me. Since I had learned to read while I was too young to learn or remember the definitions, I usually asked an adult what this or that word meant, after I’d seen it often enough to suspect it was important.
“That’s a gas truck,” my dad said. “Flammable means that it is hauling something that can easily catch fire; in this case, gasoline.” Okay. I considered the ramifications of that. Did it mean the truck could burst into flames at any moment? Right there on the highway not twenty yards ahead of us? I thought maybe Dad should back off a half mile or so, just to be on the safe side.
Later, I was comforted by seeing the word “inflammable” painted across the back end of a similar truck. Well, I thought, that’s a comfort. Nice of them to let us know that we don’t have to worry about that particular truck bursting into flames. Still, why didn’t all the safe vehicles bear the same reassurance? I knew what “in” before a word meant. A disease that was incurable couldn’t be cured; something you couldn’t stand was intolerable; and bad behavior was indecent. So, something that wouldn’t burn must be inflammable.
Dad said no. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. “Well then, what’s the word for something that doesn’t burn?”
“Fireproof,” he said.
What a silly language. I wasn’t sure I believed him about that inflammable. I checked the dictionary just to be sure. I really didn’t want my dad to be wrong, but I was having a hard time believing what he’d told me.
I decided to make my own distinction between the two words. In my personal dictionary, inflammable would mean something that could be inflamed– set on fire by an outside force. And flammable would mean that it was so volatile that it could burst into flames on its own. Both were potentially dangerous, but one was a lot less trustworthy than the other. Sure that there had to be some distinction between the two words (or why have two?) I voiced my theory to Dad. He just said, “Close enough.”
Next, I started looking up other in- words to see how many of them were equally contradictory and confusing. I found “intractable”, but that meant the opposite of “tractable”. So did most of the other in- words I found. I didn’t like those words and didn’t think I’d use many of them anyway. I decided to check out the un- words. I knew a lot of them. And I knew that un- turned those words into their opposites. Unhappy. Unwise, Unlucky. Unravel. Whoa. Ravel and unravel meant the same thing.
My experience with the word “unravel” was limited mostly to things my mother said. Things that had to do with knitting and knitted things like sweaters and mittens and socks. Once in a great while she’d use it in connection with a problem or a puzzle, as in an attempt to sort out an argument or misunderstanding, or where in the world she had left her car keys. I realized that, based on her usage, there was a subtle difference between the two words. She used “ravel” much less often, and mostly to refer to spontaneous damage to knitted things, as in, “Be careful, if you snag your sweater, it will ravel and be ruined.” Or, “don’t wear those old socks, they’re all raveled.” And she used “unravel” when it was something a person did to something, whether it was unraveling the mystery of a missing fountain pen or the taking apart an old sweater so she could re-use the yarn. Still, like Dad, my dictionary told me they were synonyms.
The un- words seemed to be a lot more reliable than the in- words, in that I could generally trust them to be just what they seemed to be– the opposites of their base words. Some, such as “untie” seemed to indicate the reversal of an action. Something that was “untied” wasn’t necessarily “not tied” in the first place, but it could also mean that the action of tying had been reversed.
Now, as I did back then, I blame my big sister who taught me to sound out the words, but not what they meant. I’m still trying to figure it all out.