For the purposes of this post, a prefix is “an element placed at the beginning of a word to adjust or qualify its meaning,” according to Oxford Languages. For a handy list of English language prefixes, consult the Wikipedia post. They’ve got you covered.
One of the many games I play in my head (I have a rich inner life) is that of stripping words of their prefixes. It’s amazing how many of the stem words have fallen out of fashion even though their prefixed versions thrive.
Take “overwhelm” for example. When’s the last time you heard anyone use the word “whelm”? If you heard it frequently in your youth, you are probably about 700 years old. Congratulations!
Which leads us nicely to the term “congratulations”, and its interesting stem word “gratulation”, which is a manifestation of joy, and something we need a lot more of these days. It’s time to bring gratulation back. Who couldn’t use a little gratulation in their life?
One of the more maddening prefixed words, in my opinion, is “inflammable”. I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many decades I operated under the false assumption that inflammable was the opposite of flammable. And I come by that confusion honestly. The prefix “in” usually signifies “not”. So logic would dictate that inflammable would mean “not flammable”. But no.
This delightful article from Dictionary.com will clear it all up for you. But in a sloppy nutshell, “in”, in this instance, means… in. (You can’t make this stuff up.) So inflammable actually means “in a state of being easily set on fire.” In other words, flammable.
But it gets even more strange. It seems that the word inflammable predates the word flammable by about 200 years, and in truth, flammable only became more popular than its counterpart around the year 1970. But it did so for good reason. It seems that I’m not the only one who has been confused by the word inflammable, and that confusion could be downright deadly. Because of this, safety experts have long advocated for the shorter version on labels.
In other words, it pays to read the label, especially with regard to children’s pajamas, and that label should not be confusing. Research for this post led me through a maze of websites, including one by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which assures us that children’s sleepwear is required to be flame resistant.
But what does flame resistant mean, in actuality? Is it different from flame retardant? That led me to this website, which explained that flame resistant clothing is “less likely” to catch fire, and if it does catch fire, it will self-extinguish once it’s removed from the combustion source. This might not seem particularly comforting to the average parent, but the best thing about flame resistant material is that, when it is exposed to heat, it won’t melt and adhere to the skin like some freakish distant cousin of napalm. Yay.
But I will say this. Polyester is supposed to be flame resistant, but I have vivid memories of my teenage sister’s boyfriend attempting to impress us by taking off is polyester shirt (It was the 70’s, so you’ll have to forgive him) and dropping it in the fireplace. We watched it melt, and I remember that it stank to high heaven. So there’s that.
Now I’m wondering if something is “inflamed”, can’t we just call it “flamed”? You’ll have to look that one up yourself. These digressions of mine are making me tired.
Digress is similar to deviate, but oddly, the “di” in digress is not a prefix, despite the fact that “di” is quite often a prefix, whereas the “de” in deviate is. The prefix “de” means off or remove, and so deviate basically means to remove oneself from the “via”, or “way”. But there I go, digressing again.
Aren’t words fascinating? I could study them for hours. I always wanted an unabridged version of the Oxford English Dictionary, but where on earth would I put it? Its current version consists of 20 volumes, with a total of 21,728 pages. Sadly, authorities on the subject say that the next edition will most likely never be printed. It will only be in digital form. Even thought trees the world over will be grateful for the reprieve, for me that will be a sad day.
Because of this digital insult to humanity, children of the future will probably never experience the pure joy of lifting one of the heavy volumes up, smelling the dust, and flipping randomly through the crispy pages to learn something unexpected. What a shame. The memory still gives me butterflies.
We seem to be dipping our toes in my stream of consciousness today. That makes me self-conscious. Which leads me back to… Where were we? Oh, yeah. Prefixes.
I feel the need to mention one last thing before you move on with your day: Even the word “prefix” has a prefix. Shouldn’t that be considered a conflict of interest? I want to lodge a protest. But then “pro” is a prefix, too…
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6 thoughts on “The Thing About Prefixes”
This is why I have trouble learning other languages. I’m still stumped by so many rule contradictions in English that I’m preconditioned to expect that the rules of other languages will be full of illogical inconsistencies. Kind of a linguistic ptsd. 😏 Wait, do I mean preconditioned or just conditioned? It can get confusing when you start messing with prefixes especially when they double up on you and you’ve no dictionary to guide you and you’re in the middle of a tied scrabble game that you just bet the farm on…
Yeah I had to give up on learning German for just that reason. You can take a German sentence, throw it into a bag, shake it up, and any way you pour it out it’ll be grammatically correct. That just fries my circuits. I need structure. But I think you’d appreciate Spanish. It’s pretty straightforward. And they never have spelling bees in spanish-speaking countries because the words are always spelled the way they sound, and that makes me very happy.
I must confess that I’ve never considered gambling while playing Scrabble, and I’m glad of that, because I think it’s a rabbit hole I’d never find my way out of!
I tried Spanish and on paper I was fine but when speaking it, I couldn’t roll my rrrrr’s. Don’t know why because my tongue is flexible enough to tie a knot in a cherry stem and it curls into a U easily, but fails when I have to trill an r. According to this article…
I just need to repeatedly say butter rapidly but that just leads to craving hot buttered popcorn and who can do that while munching on buttered popcorn? 😁
Yes… the popcorn hurdle… I have jumped it many times. And I can’t roll my r’s either. I just resigned myself to having a funny accent. I can still get my point across, though. I doubt I could pull off a click in Xhosa, either. Sadly, click languages are dying out.
Loved this post, I’m very into words and language myself. You might enjoy the podcast The Allusionist, where the creator does a deep-dive into a language-related topic every episode.
That does sound like it would be right up my alley. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!