Wednesday, August 31, 2011

454 Words on Two Words

I was taking an online FEMA Emergency Management Course today and I stumbled across this passage:
When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, 900 responders from 50 different agencies were able to communicate with one another. Response agencies had learned an invaluable lesson from the Air Florida tragedy.

Invaluable is a strange word. Webster's New College dictionary defines it as: "extremely valuable; having value too great to measure; priceless." It can be extremely valuable or priceless. Something can be extremely valuable and still have a price. If it is priceless, by definition it is "of inestimable value; beyond price." It seems like we should say valuable or priceless, and leave invaluable to people who don't really know how valuable something is. Would that sentence have been any different if it said "response agencies had learned a valuable lesson?" No.
Why bother using invaluable? If they meant priceless, then say priceless. It's a dopey word to use for something that couldn't possibly have a price to begin with. A collectible car can be priceless. A ticket to a special event can be priceless because it has a price on it. But a lesson, to me can be valuable but not priceless. And you can't call a lesson invaluable because it means the same as valuable.
Every year a group of scholars gets together and decides on new words that they want to add to dictionaries. Invaluable sounds like a word that we should eliminate.
We have enough words already, and when we have one that means two things, perhaps it's time for it to go. Why do we continue to use invaluable when priceless will do? Occasionally, I'll read something about how difficult English is to learn. When I see words like invaluable I understand why. If you were a new student to the English language, you would have to assume that invaluable meant not valuable, since the prefix is the opposite of the word it is in front of in many situations. Incorrect, injustice and incomplete are the negative versions of correct, justice and complete. How can those three words be negatives with the same prefix as a word that uses it as an exaggeration?
Inflammable is another strange word. It means anything flammable. It confuses some people because they interpret the prefix in as meaning not, but inflammable and flammable mean exactly the same thing.
In fact, the definition contains the word flammable. It comes from the Medieval Latin inflammabilis, an adjective derived from inflammare ("to set on fire"). I nominate inflammable as another word that should be eliminated. We don't need two words that are barely different yet mean exactly the same thing.
Or, perhaps you think I'm being insolent?

1 comment:

susan said...

You know several words from the Simpsons have made the OED now. "D'oh" and a few others.

Chillax was added as well this year. As well as "sexting"

How cool is that