Word: conflagration

Pronunciation: kahn-flə-GRAY-shən

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: an extensive fire that destroys a great deal of land or property

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

So I was looking through a stack of old SAT vocabulary flashcards when a rather interesting word suddenly jumped out at me. The moment I saw it, I paused and stared at the noun on the front side. “Conflagration”? What is that? I decided it was worth a shot to try and guess the definition, so I resisted the urge to turn the card over while I thought about what this word could mean. The event of being caught in the act of a crime? An offense of some sort? The act of having property taken away? No, wait, that last one is “confiscation”… Anyway, turns out none of my guesses were correct, though that isn’t to say they weren’t close…

A “conflagration” is, in simple terms, a great fire. To name an example, the incident mentioned on the SAT flashcard is the huge fire that resulted from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The word comes from the Latin verb conflagrare (translated as “to be consumed by fire”), which is comprised of the roots con- (denoting intensive force) and flagrare (meaning “to blaze”). Notably, this last verb is also the root of the word “flagrant”, meaning “obviously offensive”, which you can see was one of my first guesses for the definition of “conflagration”.

To be honest, I have virtually no memories of reading this word in context until recently, though I’m sure it must have appeared somewhere in my literature and/or history textbooks in grade school. Even if it does come up in a story I’ve read before, it probably didn’t call enough of my attention for me to remember it. That being said, I do think “conflagration” has a certain formal appeal to it, which is why I would most likely use it in non-fiction writing and poetry (especially rhyming poems, as there are tons of other words that end in -tion). I’m sure it would also be a good word to keep in mind for a scene in a thriller that involves a large destructive fire, since synonyms that don’t include the word “fire” seem to be relatively scarce. Either way, you can never have too great an understanding of the forces of nature, so be creative in working this noun into the context of your choice. Whether factual or poetic, “conflagration” is certainly an unusual and interesting word! Have fun!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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