Off Topic

Off Topic: Letter to Grammar Girl about “Inflammable”

This has nothing to do with psychometrics but today I sent this letter to Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty):

Hi Grammar Girl,

I love the podcast.

I went back and listened to the episode on “inflammable.” I wish there were a word for words and phrases I am reluctant to use correctly because I do not wish to be misunderstood.

Perhaps because “inflammable” is such a perfect example of this phenomenon, it could be re-purposed to refer to any word or phrase that should be avoided because it frequently misunderstood.

Then I could say, “I never say ‘niggardly” to mean stingy because it is hopelessly inflammable!”

Whether you like my idea or not, if you haven’t already done so, it would be interesting to have a podcast about words and phrases you worry about using for fear of being misunderstood or being unfairly judged as ignorant.

Some words, like “niggardly,” are lost causes. I don’t really need that word because there are excellent alternatives.

However, I really find the phrase “to beg the question” to be useful and I hate having to define it after using it.

I hate the fact that when I say “jealous,” people think I mean “envious.”

I avoid using the word “fantasy” even when I mean something non-sexual.

Redoubtable” just does not sound like it means what it means. I fear that people will think I mean something like “capable of causing repeated misgivings.”

Decadent” is nowadays almost exclusively associated with chocolate.

I’ve never hear the word “livid” other than to refer to the discoloration of person’s face when the person is very angry. I would be reluctant to use it for any other purpose.

Travesty” sounds too much like “tragedy.”

There are many useful meanings of “romantic” but too many people think I am referring to love.

Thanks for producing so many lively and engaging podcasts about grammar, writing, and language.

Joel Schneider




2 thoughts on “Off Topic: Letter to Grammar Girl about “Inflammable”

  1. AJ says:

    Don’t you think livid is also used quite frequently to mean just very angry?

    Difficulty over livid can be understood because it’s a pseudo-contranym.

    • Yes, I believe that livid, as it is used, simply means very angry. However, I rarely hear it misused such that the person’s face is clearly not discolored. For example, I never hear something like, “Although she did not show it, on the inside she was quite livid.” This use is quite consistent with “very angry” but inconsistent with its original meaning. Thus, it appears that although many people’s explicit definition of livid is wrong, their tacit knowledge of the word still prevents them from misusing it.

      Please explain the contradictory meanings of livid. Are you referring to the fact that livid refers to many different colors, including white?

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