Etymological Fallacy

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Etymological fallacy is the faulty argument that the "true" or "proper" meaning of a word is its oldest or original meaning.

Because the meanings of words change over time, a word's contemporary definition can't be established from its origin (or etymology). The best indicator of a word's meaning is its current use, not its derivation.

Examples and Observations

  • "The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] . . . records that the word black has a 'difficult history,' and was sometimes confused in Old English with a similar word which meant 'shining' or 'white,' but speakers would be ill-advised nowadays to use black to mean 'white.'" (Michael Stubbs, Words and Phrases: Corpus Studies of Lexical Semantics. Blackwell, 2002)
  • Doctor, Orient, Gyp, Decimate, Grow, Dilapidated
    "In our own day the etymological fallacy is widely honored, as revealed in countless statements by columnists, in letters to editors, and other public fora, which declare for example that the real meaning of doctor is 'teacher'; or that the verb orient properly means 'to arrange something to face east'; or that gyp 'cheat' is derived from Gypsy (probably), and therefore its use in any context is de facto an ethnic slur; or that decimate correctly means only 'to punish a mutiny or other serious breach of military discipline by killing one soldier in ten.

    "The etymological fallacy appears from time to time in puristic prescriptions, too, as when we are warned by usage authorities that because the real meaning of the verb grow is 'get bigger,' expressions like grow weaker or grow smaller are incoherent; or that it is impossible to climb down; or that only stone structures can be dilapidated." (Andrew L. Sihler, Language History: An Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)
  • Manure, December, Caption
    "One thing to remember when you read or hear someone insisting that an English word must have a certain meaning because of its Latin or Greek roots is that these insisters apply their etymologies very selectively. You will find few of them who object to December being used for the twelfth month, when its Latin root means 'ten,' or to manure being used as a noun meaning 'to work (land) by hand.' So when you read, for example, that caption must refer to matter above a picture because it comes from Latin caput 'head,' keep manure in mind." (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1995)
  • Education
    "What could be called an 'etymological fallacy' can sometimes be pushed quite a distance. Thus, partisans of a liberal conception of education have claimed that the word 'education' comes from 'educere,' etymology that invites a conception of education as an act of leading (induco) out of (ex) ignorance--which conforms to the liberal notion of education. On the other side are those who favor a notion of education understood as nourishing and, more broadly, furnishing the conditions necessary for a person's development. They invoke a second etymological hypothesis, according to which 'education' comes from 'educare,' which means 'nourish' or 'raise.' And still others maintain that education is an indeterminate concept and support their thesis with the very uncertainty of the etymology. You see that etymology, as illuminating as it sometimes is, cannot, in any instance, resolve problems of conceptual definition on its own." (Normand Baillargeon, A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense. Seven Stories, 2007)
  • Passing Insights
    "Etymology does not make a contribution to the description of the contemporary meaning and usage of words; it may help to illuminate how things have got to where they are now, but it as likely to be misleading as helpful (as with the 'etymological fallacy'). Etymology offers no advice to one who consults a dictionary on the appropriate use of a word in the context of a written text or spoken discourse. It merely provides some passing insight for the interested dictionary browser with the requisite background knowledge and interpretative skills." (Howard Jackson, Lexicography: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002)

    Further Reading