UNKNOWN SUPPLIER

Non-(in)flammable

ORIGINAL

NOTES

Business-mediated linguistic innovation is generally a matter of vocabulary.

Consider the replacement of the term inflammable by the upstart flammable. While Merriam-Webster reckons the newer form to be a couple of centuries old, its recent widespread adoption seems to have been driven by the concerns of industry. Apparently, businesses believe that contemporary readers are likely to misread the first syllable of the older latinate form as a negating prefix, thus getting entirely the wrong idea. (Um, inflammable ≠ fireproof, OK?)

This week’s example text, photographed at a building site in Bournemouth, shows how such health-and-safety concerns can inform syntactic as well as lexical innovation. The poster was produced by an as-yet-unidentified supplier of protective clothing for its client building companies, many of which employ casual workers. While the casuals are expected to possess the full complement of safety gear, the writer has no such expectations of their command of English. They’re presumed incapable of coping with “ARE YOU MISSING ANY OF THESE?” or a direct equivalent, so a simpler but logically inconsistent alternative has been substituted.

Our own experience of immigrant casual workers is limited to a literate (but statistically insignificant) group of Polish builders, so we’re not in a position to challenge the copywriter’s beliefs. But we believe that the responsibility for arriving at an appropriate form of expression rests with the writer. Our version eliminates the ambiguity of the original at the cost of a slightly expanded word count.

OUR VERSION

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