Wednesday, September 13, 2023



By Jim “Gymbeaux” Brown, 14 September 2023

Words do mean things.  More importantly, the same or similar words that appear to mean one thing to one person, may in fact mean something entirely different to another person.  Case in point: 

The year was1976 or 1977, can’t be sure.  I was an administrative specialist (Yeoman for people familiar with Coast Guard/Navy ratings), stationed at the Marine Inspection Office in Wilmington, North Carolina.  Overall, it was one of my better assignments and I have had some excellent assignments but this one, because of two very welcomed promotions, was a short one-year assignment.  The people stationed at the command with me were some of the best shipmates I have ever been stationed with, except of course for you-know-who.  Everyone knows, you-know-who! 

Part of our work involved reading and applying the regulations as set forth in the myriad of Code of Federal Regulations, known as CFRs.  If you ever want something to read to put you to sleep, pick any CFR and I am pretty sure you will fall asleep or maybe commit suicide whichever comes first.  I am pretty sure that most if not all CFRs are written by attorneys, no offense to Perry Mason. 

On this day I was reading a CFR and came upon the word INFLAMMABLE.  For most people, if you were to ask what INFLAMMABLE meant, they would say exactly what the most recent Internet definition would suggest and I quote: 




·   1.easily set on fire:"inflammable and poisonous gases" 

I want you to imagine me reading this particular CFR and it referred to INFLAMMABLE LIQUIDS.  I got that screwed up look on my face, not to be confused with my normal screwed up look.  I took the CFR into the Commanding Officer’s office and the conversation went something like the following: 

Me:  “Captain, I was reading this CFR and it referred to INFLAMMABLE LIQUIDS.  What does that mean?” 

Before I go on, the Commanding Officer outranked me by huge numbers; I was enlisted and he was an officer.  That aside, he knew that I liked to cut up in the office whenever I could.  In short, he never knew when I was serious or just joking around.  Like the day I left him a government pink telephone message slip to indicate he missed a call.  All I put on the slip was a telephone number.  Then several of us waited outside his office door where he could not see us when he dialed (yes. I said dialed, it was 1976/77).  The number was to a sex hotline.  It took him only a minute to shout out my name BROWN!”  I knew what was up by the way he called out my name.  If he called out JIM, I knew all was well.  If he called out BROWN, I knew I was in trouble.  If he called out Petty Officer Brown, I looked for the nearest exit.  That didn’t happen all that much.  Back to our conversation.

Commander:  (Not knowing if I was serious or just joking but I had my serious screwed up look on my face when I asked.).  “It means that you are talking about liquids that can easily catch fire.” 

Me:  “Really.  What does INVALUABLE mean?” 

Commander:  Something of so much value it has no price to you that you might want to sell it for.” 

Me:  “So, the “IN” mean NO or NOT, right? 

Commander:  “Yes, that’s right.” 

Me:  “So, (I hate when people start their sentences with the word “so”), So, “IN” meaning NO or NOT in front of FLAMMABLE means it represents something that cannot burn, right?” 

Captain:  (After a rather long pause, got the same screwed up look on his face that I had on mine).  “You know, you are right!  I’ll be, every CFR contains the word INFLAMMABLE if it deals with Merchant Marine Safety and God only know how many other Coast Guard missions.” 

That was the end of our conversation and I thought it really would be the end of our conversation but it wasn’t.  Not long after that conversation, the Commander called me back into his office and this time, he called out Jim so I knew all was well.  He handed me a draft of a letter he wrote on the yellow legal line tablet paper, written to the Commandant of the U. S. Coast Guard and sent via the District Commander for his endorsement.  After all these years I cannot tell you exactly what the letter said but the gist of it was similar to our conversation. 

The Commander did as I did and looked up the definition of INFLAMMABLE and according to the dictionaries then as well as now, it indicates that it refers to liquids that easily burn.  In his letter he gave several examples of words that were prefaced with the word “IN” and then made the point that there is no reason to ever use the word INFLAMMABLE and in its place the word FLAMMABLE would better serve its intended purpose and future CFRs should reflect the change in the usage of the word INFLAMMABLE to simply FLAMMABLE with the later being more definitive and less confusing. 

We sent the letter off and I forgot about it.  Several weeks later we received a response from the Commandant of the U. S. Coast Guard with an endorsement by the District Commander indicating that from this point on, the word INFLAMMABLE would no longer be used in any directives and in its place the word FLAMMABLE will be used. 

Then, as Paul Harvey would say, “now for the rest of the story.”  Not only was the word changed within the U. S. Coast Guard, it turned out that all of the CFRs that had ever been written and that were still active and applicable had to be changed accordingly.  You can’t imagine the massive printing job that created, not to mention the cost. You can’t make this up! 

I patted myself on my back and went about my business knowing that I had left my “mark” on the United States Coast Guard and an untold number of other government agencies.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 



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