Patterico's Pontifications


A Not Valuable (As Opposed to Invaluable) Observation

Filed under: Grammar — Patterico @ 6:52 am

Why is it that “inaction” is not action, and something that is “inapt” is not apt — but “invaluable” means very valuable, and “inestimable” means very estimable? (I know, I know; technically, they don’t. But in common usage, they do.)

16 Responses to “A Not Valuable (As Opposed to Invaluable) Observation”

  1. Add inflammable to your list…

    Steverino (0a4303)

  2. And why isn’t something “ane,” if it isn’t inane?

    Xrlq (428dfd)

  3. Easy: the prefix “in” in both INvaluable and INestimable refers as much to the “-able” suffixes as to the word roots. That is, it should be understood not to negate the root meanings of value or estimate (e.g., to mean value-less), but rather to negate the COMPOUND meaning of root+suffix –i.e., not capable of being valued, or being estimated.

    The true head-scratcher would be how can “worthless” and “priceless” have such different meanings.

    John Plunket (951a58)

  4. Inflammable means flammable? What a crazy country!

    Dr. Nick Riveria (292af3)

  5. John, you’re right about the morphology, of course, but that doesn’t make Patterico’s observation any less odd: you can something is capable of being valued, or that it isn’t, and mean the same thing either way.

    Priceless and worthless is a nice pair of antonyms that shouldn’t be, but I can do one better: sanction and sanction.

    My guess is that inflammable is a red herring, being based on the verb inflame, and not on the negative in- as a prefix to flammable (an odd word in its own right since you don’t “flamm” anything, nor even “flame” anyone outside of Usenet and the blogosphere).

    Xrlq (6c76c4)

  6. And, most importantly, who don’t we ever see any of those words in the Los Angeles Times?

    Justice Frankfurter (2dcd84)

  7. I would sanction Patterico for bringing this up… if his ambiguity shortage hadn’t already been addressed.

    AMac (b6037f)

  8. “Flammable” comes from the Latin flamare, “to set fire to”, so in its original meaning, one could “flame” something.

    In this case, the prefix “in-” is not negating the rest of the word; rather, it comes from the Latin in, meaning “to or toward”. (Xlrq’s analysis on this is correct.)

    Another English oddity: “cleave” has two meanings that are direct opposites. One meaning is “to stick together” the other is “to split apart”. (No, I don’t know whether the Cleavers were a family that stuck together.)

    Steverino (0a4303)

  9. This is so old…George Carlin did a stand-up routine about this 30 years ago, that included the flammable-inflammable and other funny linguistic oddities. I’m sure you could Google your way into it, or find it on one of his albums.

    RHB (fbae5a)

  10. Irregardless (or is it regardless?), I just don’t know.

    Jal (71415b)

  11. A brief note: the purpose of language is to communicate. When there is a conflict between some schoolmarm’s set of rules and the facility of communication, the latter should always win.

    In the case of inflammable, which was the earlier word, folks feared that children and semiliterates might misunderstand it to mean that the subject it modified would not catch fire… so in the 1920s, the National Fire Protection Association began urging use of the newer word flammable in place of the ancient word inflammable (flammable dates only to 1813).

    Evidently, the Brits are less prone to use flammable, inclining more towards inflammable; here in America, inflammable tends to be used figuratively — particularly in constructs such as inflammatory — while flammable is used for most literal purposes.

    (I checked my memory against the 1994 Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, an invaluable diction companion. There is a new edition out, now called the Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage; but I worry about that word “concise”… does it mean fewer entries? I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know.)


    Dafydd (6e94cd)

  12. It’s called a “word game”, for God’s sake. Get a grip.

    J. Peden (16ff2e)

  13. English is a free-range, living language. That tends to produce oddities. They could be brought under control by a governmental or quasi-governmental body (such as the one that guards the ‘purity’ of the French language) – and one can just imagine the results.

    According to a book of my reading (on the Oxford Dictionary – by the same man who wrote THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN) English has a vocabulary of over 450,000 words and short phrases. Other languages, such as French or German tend to fall into the 60,000 to 80,000 range. So English is both the most powerful, and the messiest, language on earth.

    C. S. P. Schofield (3eed8d)

  14. Worthless/priceless is easy:

    Worthless: has no worth
    Priceless: has no price, aka, you cannot set a price on it

    The difference being that you set a price on something, you don’t set a worth on something. Either it is worth something, or it is not. If it’s not, it’s worthless. Something that doesn’t have a price must have a value that cannot be priced, thus very valuable. Something that is not valuable has the price of $0, or as the Spanish (and Norwegians, that’s me!) say, gratis. 😉

    Yeah, I think I need to get some sleep now… This post ought to do it!

    Seixon (8a026e)

  15. Perhaps our addiction to irony has caused to forget what we really mean.

    Reliance on irony has also become an automatic defense when one has said something stupid. “I was just kidding, don’t you have a sense of humor?”

    Yes, I do, in the presence of wit.

    Future generation who don’t parade irony as stylistic elegance will have great difficulty understanding the writings of the present time.

    Brett (7783f5)

  16. Just change the prefix 😉

    Gratis Forum (ef8017)

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