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Top 10 Negative English Words with Positive Meanings

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi This week’s column was incited by my reminiscence of an incident that happened in t...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
This week’s column was incited by my reminiscence of an incident that happened in the 5th year of my high school. In one of our English reading comprehension passages, we read Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s description of his wife as a “jewel of inestimable value.” Some students in the class told our teacher that the word “inestimable” sounded rather negative. “Does Awolowo mean that his wife is like a worthless jewel?” one student asked.

The teacher answered in the negative and added that words like “invaluable,” “priceless,” “measureless,” “numberless” also appear to be negative but actually have positive meanings. A friend of mine took this lesson to heart and couldn’t wait to impress his girlfriend of his mastery of the recondite morphological logic of the English language.

So the following day he told his girlfriend that the love he had for her was “valueless!” As you would expect, the girl was enraged. My friend’s attempt to lecture her on negative-sounding English words that have positive meanings failed. “Even the great Awo called his wife inestimable or valueless,” he said in a last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship.

When he came to me to bemoan how the inability of his girlfriend to grasp the weird structural logic of some English words cost him his relationship with her, I asked him to recount for me exactly what happened. It turned out that what he really wanted to tell his girlfriend was that his love for her was “invaluable.” But “priceless,” “measureless,” “numberless,” and all these other words that end with “less” that our teacher had taught us, acted as false attractions, which caused him to mistake “valueless” for “invaluable.” My friend lost his girlfriend but gained an invaluable lesson in first mastering the garbled morphology of English before flaunting it.

When I shared this story with a friend some weeks back, a flood of several negative-sounding English words with positive meanings came to my mind, and I thought I should share them with my readers. Find below the top 10 words I came up with that fit the bill.

1. “Immeasurable.” As I show in number two below, the affix “im-” often functions to introduce negative meanings in independent words that begin with an “m.” That’s why words like “immaterial,” “immature,” “immodest,” “immoderate,” etc. are the negative forms of the root words they modify. But “immeasurable” isn’t the negative form of “measurable.” It means too great to be measured.

2. “Invaluable.”  Although most English words that begin with the morpheme “in-” often have a negative meaning because “in-” signifies “not” or “opposite of” (think of “inelegant,” “insurmountable,” “ineradicable,” “inelastic,” “insane,” “incompetent,” etc.), “invaluable” means so valuable that it’s difficult to calculate. 

In English morphology  the affix “il-” is used to form negative meaning in root words that begin with an “l” (e.g. “illiterate, “illegal,” “illegitimate,” etc.), “im-” is used before words that begin with the letters “a” “b,” “m” or “p,” (e.g. “imbecile,” “immaterial,” “impractical,” etc.), “ir-” before words that begin with an “r,” (e.g. “irreplaceable,” “irreparable,” “irredeemable,” etc.) and “in-” before most letters.

But the “in-” in “invaluable” isn’t negative. On the contrary, it signifies a surfeit of positives. The Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition defines it as “having great value that is impossible to calculate; priceless.” The word entered the English language in the 1570s with this meaning. By the 1630s, however, there was a shift in its meaning. It came to mean “without value; worthless.”  That meaning didn’t last long. After the 1630s, “invaluable” reverted to its original meaning, and has retained that meaning ever since.

3. “Inestimable.” Like “invaluable,” the presence of the affix “in-” doesn’t make the word the opposite of “estimable.” It rather means too estimable to be estimated. The Random House Dictionary defines it as, “of incalculable value; valuable beyond measure; priceless.” It’s a Latin word whose original form is “inaestimabilis.”  It came to French, according to etymologists, in the late 14th century as “inestimable” from where it made its way to English. The word has been used in English to mean "too precious to set a value on, priceless" since at least the 1570s.

As my prefatory remarks show, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s famous description of his wife as his “jewel of inestimable value” helped popularize this word in Nigerian English.

4. “Inflammable.” This is perhaps the most perilously misunderstood word in the English language. In spite of appearances to the contrary, it is not the opposite of “flammable”; on the contrary, it is synonymous with “flammable,” which is a relatively recent made-up word, as you will see shortly. It means combustible, that is, capable of catching fire.  Several accidents have happened in the English-speaking world as a result of the semantic confusion that arose from this word. Materials that are described as “inflammable” are often misunderstood as “not capable of catching fire,” which is the exact opposite of what the word actually means.

In light of the accidents that the misunderstanding of the word has caused, American safety experts launched a sustained campaign as early as 1920 for the abandonment of the word and for its replacement with “flammable,” at least in technical usage. “The National Safety Council, The National Fire Protection Association, and similar organizations have set out to discourage the use of the word ‘inflammable’ and to encourage the use of the word ‘flammable’ instead. The reason for this change is that the meaning of ‘inflammable’ has so often been misinterpreted,” a statement said in 1920. 

The British Standards Institution followed suit. It also discouraged the use of “inflammable.” In a 1959 statement, it said, “In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘non-flammable’ rather than ‘inflammable’ and ‘non-inflammable’.”

Inflammable came to English from Medieval Latin around 1600 and meant exactly what it means in English—well, until native English speakers decided to chop off the “in” in the word to have “flammable.” Interestingly, Latin-derived languages like French still use “inflammable” to mean “capable of catching fire.” In Canada where government regulation requires combustible materials to be labeled in both English and French, the English warning often reads “flammable” while the French warning reads “inflammable” on the same combustible material! Now, that’s REALLY combustible!

This confusion is a result of the morphological characteristics of Latin, which has two uses for the affix “in-.” The first obvious use of the affix is to form opposites of words, as I showed earlier. But a second, less-known use is to accentuate the meaning of a word. Examples can be found in words like “inculcate,” “incubate,” “indoctrinate,” etc. “Inflammable” falls in that category.

5. “Inhabitable.” This negative-sounding positive word almost causes the same confusion as “inflammable.” In its contemporary usage, it is the synonym, not the antonym, of “habitable.” An inhabitable place is a place that is fit to live in. It is an entirely positive word. However, etymologists point out that in the late 14th century when the word made its first appearance in English, it used to mean the exact opposite of what it means today. It meant “not fit to live in.” That was the meaning William Shakespeare had in mind when, in 1597, he wrote:  “Even to the frozen ridges of the Alps, / Or any other ground inhabitable.”

“Inhabitable” took its current meaning (that is, fit for habitation) from the 1600s. It came about as a derivational morpheme of “inhabit” (inhabit + able), which has always meant to live in or to dwell both in English and in Latin (where it is rendered as inhabitare). The modern antonym of “inhabitable” in English is “uninhabitable.”

6. “Numberless.” Although the word can mean “without numbers” (the suffix “less” means “without”) it often means too numerous to be counted, as in, “the president’s numberless media aides.”

7. “Peerless.” Although the suffix “less” introduces negative meaning in words (such as “useless,” “careless,” “clueless,” etc.) the “less” in “peerless” isn’t negative. It means beyond comparison, matchless (another word with the “less” suffix but which means something positive). A peerless scholar has no rival. He is the best of the best. 

8. “Priceless.” This is another positive word with a “less” suffix. It doesn’t mean “without price.” It means, instead, “having a value beyond price.”

9. “Inimitable.” It means too great to be imitated, irreproducible (another negative-sounding word with a positive meaning), without comparison, one of its kind. Example: “Chinua Achebe’s prose is inimitable.”

10. “Unnumbered.” Although this word can mean “without number” (as in, “unnumbered pages”), it can also mean “too numerous to be counted” as in, “she spent unnumbered hours reading the committee’s bulky report.”

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