Monday, June 15, 2009


On Skywatch Friday, I posted some additional notes about two obsolete Shakespearean-era English words, ravel and sleave. When checking on the background of these words, I discovered that “ravel” and it’s perceived (and non-obsolete) opposite, “unravel” each mean the same thing. It brought up the whole topic of how English forms negatives or opposites of things. We usually do it by adding a prefix, and for that we certainly have a number of choices:

likely – unlikely
understood - misunderstood
complete - incomplete
modest - immodest
reversible - irreversible
logical – illogical

A prominent exception, as mentioned on Friday by Sue, is the seemingly opposite pair, "flammable" and "inflammable." However, just as with ravel/unravel, these two fiery words mean the exactly same thing. The confusion (which began in the 16th Century and wasn’t resoled until the 18th!) resulted because each of the English words in question is based on a different Latin one, but the confusion posed too great a risk. We can’t have people thinking that something “inflammable” is fireproof when it isn’t! What we usually see these days in "flammable" and "non-flammable." (If you’d like the complete and really fascinating history, go HERE.)

Another fellow blogger, Small City Scenes, commented on the words “thaw/unthaw.” This really intrigued me. At first glance, this pair would seem to be following the same linguistic route as flammable/inflammable” but wait… We can definitely freeze and unfreeze something. And when we unfreeze something, we thaw it, right? So how do we explain “unthaw?” Stickler as I can be over my word usage at times, I’m also a great fan of slang and creative idioms, so I’m pretty sure I’ve probably used “unthaw” at one time or another. Plus, I found that several online dictionaries listed “unthaw” and the equally redundant “dethaw.” Are these the result of an over-zealous application of the rules of English negation? One online commenter at a site I visited simply called unthaw a “slang synonym.” Then Barb brought up the intriguing subject of "lost positives" like "gruntled" and "sheveled," which we only use now wit the prefix "dis." But I'll save that one for another post and another day.

And finally, a thanks to Sandy Carlson for the link for the Online Etymology Dictionary, a handy reference for all our future linguistic troubleshooting. I’ve saved it, and will surely never unbookmark it!


Lin said...

english is fascinating.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Oh the meaning of words.... So hard at times to discern.

GiVEAWAY on my blog today only.

Have a great day.

Poetikat said...

Excellent! I'm so happy to have this link to the Etymological Dictionary - I love word origins. (Very helpful on Jeopardy! too.) So thanks to you, Deb and to Sandy as well.

I immediately thought, "unravel the sleave of care". What play does that come from again?


Poetikat said...

Ah, now I know! "Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care." (From that unmentionable play - the one that's at Stratford this fall with Colm Feore in the title role.)

JC this Wednesday night. Woo hoo!


Sylvia K said...

great post, Deborah, as always and, yes, english is fascinating, languages, period, are fascinating. i studied german in college, lived in spain and mexico -- two different versions of spanish! spoke them both for a while -- you don't use, you lose! And while working for komatsu, i learned japanese - enough to be able to help/work with the people i was continually involved with. and now? doing good to speak english. But it's always been fun and fascinating. have a great week! thanks for the links!

SandyCarlson said...

What a great post. Our language fascinates me. Every word is a poem unto itself.

Anonymous said...

I would like to think more about this but I mus go unthaw something for supper!

Not one of my family would see anything wrong with this.

magiceye said...

this is so much fun and interesting!

Sue said...

Oh, Deborah, thank you!! Such and interesting post, I never realized that flammable and inflammable came from different roots.

Speaking of lost positives -- how about "ruth" (meaning compassion for the misery of another, the opposite of ruthless). Now there's a world that really should be revived, as our world would be so much improved by replacing ruthlessness with ruth.

Rachel Fox said...

Nice to have an online etymological can argue with the one on my shelf now and again I'm sure!

Ruth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruth said...

Interesting post. No wonder people find English challenging to learn as a second language. I had to laugh at Sue's comment. I never use the word "ruthless" as I was always teased about it. Does "ruth" really mean "compassion"?

Indrani said...

"never unbookmark" ?! :)
You write such facts in such an interesting manner, ...makes me think.