[Ads-l] in- prefix (was "words connected to a single provenance")

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Aug 30 16:50:00 EDT 2018

> On Aug 30, 2018, at 2:39 PM, Geoffrey Nunberg <nunbergg at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
>> Date:    Mon, 27 Aug 2018 11:14:38 -0400
>> From:    Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>> Subject: Re: words connected to a single provenance
>> Hmmm. Not sure about your take on “inflammable”, or on “in-“ ever being reanalyzed as an intensifying prefix outside of SNL skits. The earliest uses of “inflammable”—and indeed the only ones currently attested in the “not fully updated” OED entry, derive it as an ordinary formation from transitive “inflame”, i.e. ‘capable of being/becoming inflamed’. It’s the negative that’s the reanalysis, “iN-” ‘not’ + “flammable”. In “infamous” and “infamy”, of course, the negative prefix was there ab ovo. So the two chronologies wouldn’t be parallel, but are you just saying that for speakers (including those not named Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, etc.) who have two lexical items “flammable” and “inflammable”, neither of them involving negative “iN-“, there’s a feeling that there must be *some* connotative difference between the two, and that they’ve settled on the “iN-“ being an intensifier? 
> Yes — for some people, at least. Cf.
> The problem is that the Latin prefix "i(n)" serves as both a negative and an intensifier: 
> inconceivable - not conceivable 
> impossible - not possible 
> but 
> intense - very tense 
> inflammable - very flammable 
> 	http://www.antimoon.com/forum/t6562.htm

I beg to (still) differ, the collective authority of antimoon, vocablogic, and my former elementary school classmate notwithstanding.

> So, basing word meaning strictly on the meanings of each morpheme, inflammable could be interpreted in three possible ways:
> 	• 'not flammable'
> 	• 'flammable from within, able to burst into flame'
> 	• 'extremely flammable’  
> 	Vocablogic http://bit.ly/2Pme2dn
> While most –in prefixes have negative meanings, the ­–in used in inflammable is formed using a different Latin prefix –in, and it has the effect of intensifying the word. In other words, inflammable is something that is easily set on fire. 
> 	• “Too Much Johnson,” which had been shot on highly inflammable nitrate stock, had apparently been lost to the ages. –The New York Times
> 	https://writingexplained.org/?p=13755

Again, I don’t see a misanalysis, but an analysis in line with the etymology (‘capable of bursting into flame’, ‘capable of being/becoming inflamed').  If “inflammable” were really an intensified version of “flammable”, we would expect to be able to easily say things like “That fabric is flammable but it isn’t inflammable, so we don’t need to pull it from the market” or “It’s not just flammable, it’s inflammable”.  I think the two are very close to being synonyms, rather than one being clearly stronger than the other.  In other words, I’m with him:


As for “intense”, it doesn’t just mean “very tense” the way excellent means ‘(very) very good’ or "frigid” means ‘very cold'; the relationship between the two adjectives isn’t strictly scalar.  All sorts of things can be intense (an experience, a light, a color, a feeling, a friendship, a love affair) without being tense.  There may be contexts in which “intense” is exactly like “tense” only more so, but they don’t leap to mind, and I can’t imagine saying

The situation wasn’t tense, let alone intense (cf. “it wasn’t good, let alone excellent”)
It wasn’t just tense, it was downright intense.(cf. “it wasn’t warm out, let alone hot”)
It was tense, or even intense. (cf. “it was cold, or even frigid”)

I just don’t see the evidence that “in-“ is regularly reanalyzed as an intensifier (or even a tensifier).  

As for the “highly inflammable nitrate stock”, there’s no evidence that that stock used for the immortal “Too Much Johnson” was any *more* flammable than the highly flammable nitrate stock cited in contexts like these:

In addition to running the theater, Hampton collected and restored silent films, which were shot on highly flammable nitrate film stock.

The early Hitchcock films, including The Mountain Eagle, were shot on highly flammable nitrate stock.

Before the industry switched to fire-resistant “safety film” in the 1950s, motion pictures were shot on highly flammable nitrate-based film, which generates its own oxygen while burning and is therefore nearly impossible to extinguish once ignited.

Again it seems as though “flammable” and “inflammable” are being used as synonyms—when, of course, they’re not antonyms.

> No way to know how extensive this misanalysis is. 
> Another word that sometimes figures in these discussions is ‘invaluable’. My sense is that most people analyze the prefix here as an intensifier or something. At least, you don’t see sentences like “Intangibles like brand loyalty are invaluable, so we won’t pay for them” which would be consistent with the etymology. 
> Valuable means either worth a great deal of money or extremely useful or important.
> Invaluable means extremely useful; indispensable – very valuable, if you will. 
> https://wp.me/pFGlr-lW
>> Besides the locative in- ‘in(to)’ of Germanic origin and the locative iN- ‘in’ of Latin origin (as in “inflammable”), and of course the negative/privative iN- as in “infamous”, “impossible”, is there really ever an intensifying in- or iN- prefix, or at least one of any productivity? OED has an entry for in- prefix 4 with the sense ‘exceedingly, very’, but its only examples are Old English _indryhten_ most noble, infród very wise, _inhold_ thoroughly loyal; Middle English _inred_ deep red. LH
> Geoff
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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