The Other I

August 17, 2010


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:34 pm

A comment on my post yesterday said the reader often had to look up the meaning of words I use.  My students used to tell me the same thing.  Mostly it is an absolute blind spot.  I cannot think of a single word I use that is not in common parlance, and would love to receive an example or two.

But I must admit that “chuffed” isn’t American.  It’s northern English that I learned from my Yorkshire in-laws.  It’s such an absolutely wonderful word, though, that I am afraid I do use it rather often.  The sedate definition probably would be “pleased,” but I don’t think that really communicates its full richness.

Chuffed is the little train that could, chuffed is the kid who’s just hit a home run, chuffed is the teenager who has just done what you told him wasn’t possible.  I suppose it’s am amalgamation of “huffed” and “puffed”.  It reminds me of the robin that has just found the worm.

Interestingly, here in the south of England, it also sometimes connotes just the opposite – surly or displeased or complaining loudly.

Rather like the difference between the American and English meanings of “to table.”  In England it means to put it up for discussion;  in America it means just the opposite.



  1. To those who think they are not confused: try the word
    INFLAMMABLE (unless, in England, it does not contradict itself.)


    Comment by budavar — August 19, 2010 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

    • Right! It seemed so strange I looked it up on the internet and Google sent me to the following: which says:

      Blame it on Latin and its tricky prefixes. In the beginning, there was “inflammable,” a perfectly nice English word based on the Latin “inflammare,” meaning “to kindle,” from “in” (in) plus “flamma” (flame). “Inflammable” became standard English in the 16th century. So far, so good.

      Comes the 19th century, and some well-meaning soul dreamt up the word “flammable,” basing it on a slightly different Latin word, “flammare,” meaning “to set on fire.” There was nothing terribly wrong with “flammable,” but it never really caught on. After all, we already had “inflammable,” so “flammable” pretty much died out in the 1800’s.

      “But wait,” you say, “I saw ‘flammable’ just the other day.” Indeed you did. “Flammable” came back, one of the few successful instances of social engineering of language.

      The Latin prefix “in,” while it sometimes means just “in” (as in “inflammable”), more often turns up in English words meaning “not” (as in “invisible” — “not visible”). After World War Two, safety officials on both sides of the Atlantic decided that folks were too likely to see “inflammable” and decide that the word meant “fireproof,” so various agencies set about encouraging the revival of “flammable” as a substitute. The campaign seems to have worked, and “inflammable” has all but disappeared.

      That left what to call something that was not likely to burst into flames, but here the process of linguistic renovation was easier. “Non-flammable” is a nice, comforting word, and besides, it’s far easier on the tongue than its now thankfully obsolete precursor, “non-inflammable.”

      The Oxford English Dictionary adds this usage note: Historically, flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. However, the presence of the prefix in- has misled many people into assuming that inflammable means “not flammable” or “noncombustible.” The prefix -in in inflammable is not, however, the Latin negative prefix -in, which is related to the English -un and appears in such words as indecent and inglorious. Rather, this -in is an intensive prefix derived from the Latin preposition in. This prefix also appears in the word enflame. But many people are not aware of this derivation, and for clarity’s sake it is advisable to use only flammable to give warnings


      Comment by theotheri — August 21, 2010 @ 4:15 pm | Reply

      • A very clear explanation, better than my dictionaries. Now let’s try CLEAVE.


        Comment by budavar — August 31, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

      • This is fascinating. I wonder if we worked at it how many words we could find that mean both what they say and its opposite – not counting irony. CLEAVE has a lot of possibilities when you think about it. It might undermine thousands of marriage vows: I vow to cleave unto thee in sickness and health… Best perhaps, for such couples not to be in the vicinity of the kitchen knives when they are arguing.

        It looks as if what happened is that the Old English (which came from the Proto-German and Proto-Indo-European root) for both meanings of cleave were quite similar: to cut, slice, or split was *clēofan*, while to stick or cling was *cleofian*.

        No wonder we don’t know what we’re talking about half the time.


        Comment by theotheri — August 31, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

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