Q&A: The “in–” crowd

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re on fire…

Q: Hi AWC, I took my grandma to the antique fair yesterday.

A: Oh, that’s a thing nice to do. How was it?

Q: Not great. They offered me a lot less for her than I was expecting.

A: Um, okay. Is this story going anywhere else?

Q: Actually it is. There were plenty of valuable things at the fair, and others that weren’t so valuable. But of course the word isn’t “invaluable” is it – what’s with that?

A: Yes, the word you’d be looking for is “worthless” or “inexpensive”.

Q: Okay, so there you go – “inexpensive” is what I’m talking about. That means the OPPOSITE of “expensive”. Just like “invisible” is opposite of “visible” or “indecent” is the opposite of “decent”. And YET, “invaluable” is NOT the opposite of “valuable”??

A: Whoa, go easy on those capital letters, hombre. But yes, the “in–” prefix has a few jobs. The main one is to turn a word into its opposite meaning. More examples include “incurable” or “incoherent” – there are plenty.

Q: So what’s with “invaluable” then?

A: Well sometimes “in–” is used in an intensifier role. And while “invaluable” actually did once mean “without value” (about 400 years ago), this dropped away over time, and its “priceless” meaning remains today.

Q: Actually, “priceless” is also odd – being worth more than something pricey.

A: Yes, true. It means something is so valuable that you can’t put a price on it.

Q: Just like grandma.

A: Hmmm, yes. It also has an informal meaning – “the look on your face was priceless” – meaning to be amusing.

Q: Okay, let’s get back on track. Are there other “in–” words that behave strangely?

A: There sure are. Take the word “infamous” for example. It doesn’t mean the opposite of “famous”. Instead, it’s famous for something bad. For example, the infamous Best Picture envelope incident at this year’s Oscars.

Q: La La Land thought they’d won. But it was just a stage they were going through. Haha.

A: You’re hilarious.

Q: So, others?

A: Sure. There’s the curious case of “flammable” meaning exactly the same thing as “inflammable”.

Q: Wait, what? So when my pyjamas say “inflammable” on the tag, I’m not to drape them over the heater?

A: Not recommended at all. It’s an extension of “inflame” – another problem word that doesn’t mean “opposite of flame”.

Q: I’m sorry. My mind is officially blown. I didn’t know. “Flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing?

A: Afraid so. Both are identical adjectives meaning to easily set on fire. The culprit is the Latin origin prefix “in-“, which for this word means “to cause to.”

Q: You’re on fire today. Flammable AND inflammable.

A: Then there is “ingenious” – it certainly doesn’t mean “not a genius”.

Q: No, that word is “numpty”…

A: Haha, actually that's a real word of Scottish origin. “Ingenious” meanwhile means clever or inventive – a synonym of the adjective form of “genius” (“that was a genius idea”). But be careful not to confuse it with “ingenuous” – which means innocent.

Q: “Ingenuous”? Hmmm, haven’t really come across that before.

A: You may have heard of an “ingénue” though – an innocent female damsel in distress type in films. More common back in the days of Mary Pickford.

Q: Who?

A: Exactly.

Q: Well thank you for this invaluable information. Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to get home and um, take something off my heater…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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