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Difference between Inferno and Infernal

The words ‘inferno’ and ‘infernal’ were originally different forms of the same concept, but their meanings have drifted over the years. While they are still related, one expresses the original concept more than the other.

Both words come from the Latin word ‘infernus’, which meant ‘of the lower regions’, which in turn came from a word meaning ‘under’. ‘Infernus’ was used to refer to the underworld or the afterlife. Later, it became associated with the concept of Hell, since Hell was an afterlife that was commonly thought to be under the earth. The word split off into the French ‘infernal’ and the Italian ‘inferno’, both representing similar meanings but gradually drifting apart. Because Hell is considered to be a fiery place of torment, people began to use the words as metaphors for hellfire and then ordinary fire, and they eventually became official words for the concepts.

Of the two, ‘infernal’ more closely resembles its origins. It is an adjective and it is most often used to say that something is hellish or related to the world of the dead.

“They continued their journey across the infernal lakes of lava.”

Similarly, it can mean that something is diabolical or fiendish.

“His infernal smile was the only warning I had.”

The next most common meaning is related to the meaning of ‘inferno’, where something is like a large fire.

“The oven was giving off an almost infernal level of heat.” 

Another example would be found in the phrase ‘infernal machine’, which was commonly used as a term for explosives, though it has fallen out of use for the most part.

More rarely, it means something that is dark or gloomy, such as in a cave. The word ‘stygian’ is a good synonym.

“No light penetrated the infernal mist blocking off the sky.”

Finally, it can be an expletive expressing frustration, similar to ‘damn’ or ‘damned’, as well as the word ‘hell’. It isn’t considered vulgar, but it is getting to be old-fashioned.

“This infernal rain just won’t let up!”

While it is not often used today, ‘infernal’ might be used as a noun to describe the denizens of an infernal area. This usage is mainly found in older works or in Dungeons and Dragons.

‘Inferno’, on the other hand, is solely a noun. Most of the time, it means a large, often dangerous fire.

“The inferno blazed out of control.”

It can also be used for Hell or something that resembles Hell, though it is more often a metaphor for Hell than used for the place itself.

“I would walk through the inferno for you.”

This meaning is not used as often nowadays. It will show up in a few cases, especially in older texts or ones that mimic older speech patterns, but this meaning is slowly falling out of use and is not likely to last for much longer.

To summarize, the word ‘infernal’ is the adjective form and ‘inferno’ is the noun form of the word, though their meanings vary more than regular noun and adjective pairs. ‘Infernal’ means that something resembles the underground or a hellish landscape, as well as a large fire. An inferno, on the other hand, is most often a large fire, though it can also be used to mean Hell itself. The two words have the same origin, but their meanings have drifted because of cultural associations from the underground to a fiery afterlife to the idea of a fire. While there is some overlap, ‘infernal’ is linked more strongly with the concept of Hell, while ‘inferno’ is much closer to the concept of fire.

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