Tag Archives: infrared

Don’t be misled or go awry

My latest article for The Week is about book words – words you’ve learned from a book without learning the pronunciation. We’ve all had them, and there’s no shame in it:

Don’t be misled or go awry with ‘book words’

And here’s my companion pronunciation tip video (also embedded in the article):


When I was young, I would on occasion see this word, pretty much always in the phrase infrared light. I had the sense that it was a special kind of light that one couldn’t see – light that permeated the dark, even. My feeling of this word was certainly conditioned by how I assumed it was pronounced: as in plus frared, the latter rhyming with flared. It sounded clandestine and hot, and perhaps in some way impaired. Its /r_rd/ had a dark massiveness that reared and roared, the mouth starting pursed, then opening briefly and returning to pursed, like a flash of a searchlight or a glimpse of a star.

And I actually heard of, and knew, infra-red for some time before I realized that this infrared was in fact infra-red written without the hyphen! (How infra dig.) Indeed, the hyphenless spelling generated more heat than light. It was also somewhere around that time that I came to understand that infrared (“below red” – infra being Latin for “below” and red being English for “red”) made a pair with ultraviolet (ultra being Latin for “beyond”).

Indeed, perhaps I should have inferred it sooner. Naturally, the different pronunciation comes with a different feel. It has two syllables in a row with /r/ in the onset, which puts it in the company of such as rarity and rural – but with the /f/ before the /r/ it may be a bit easier to say than rural, since the /r/ after the /f/ can be reduced. As well, the middle syllable is the unstressed one. And it has three short bumps rather than a bump and a flare.

So there is more to this word than meets the eye. And indeed one ought to be careful not to infer too much from the infra. It may be below the visible spectrum, but it’s not a minor thing. You can find it all over the place; it’s anything but rare. You’re emitting it right now. So is the sun; in fact, the majority of the solar radiation that hits the earth is infrared. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. Now, certainly, visible and ultraviolet light also produce heat, but at least visible light generates, for our eyes, more light than heat. But all things that emit heat emit light (in the broad sense referring to all electromagnetic radiation, visible or not) – it just happens that most of the time that light is infrared.

Imagine if we could see infrared with our eyes. No human could lurk in the darkness unseen. We would have an even more clearly defined dichotomy between warm things and cold things. Sunlight would be much brighter. Fevers would be obvious, stoves hard to look at; restaurant servers and coffee cups wouldn’t need to warn you of the heat. And a worthless blaze would be less likely said to give, as Polonius (in Hamlet) says, “more light than heat,” since more heat would of course mean more light.