Semantic Change and the Etymological Fallacy

Why There’s No 'Good' in 'Goodbye'

Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The etymological fallacy is the faulty argument that the "true" or "proper" definition of a word must be its oldest or original meaning. The truth is, because most words undergo some degree of semantic change, the only reliable guide to a word's meaning is present-day usage rather than history.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) illustrates this point nicely:

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 'dung' when it originally was a verb 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.
As Howard Jackson points out in Lexicography: An Introduction (2002), "Etymology . . . merely provides some passing insight for the interested dictionary browser with the requisite background knowledge and interpretative skills."

Of course you don't have to be a misguided purist to take an interest in word histories. For example, a brief tour of the Oxford English Dictionary can help us understand why, etymologically, there's . . .

  • No Good in Goodbye
    Goodbye is a contraction of the blessing "God be with ye."
  • No Male in Female
    Female comes from the diminutive of the Latin word femina ("woman"). It made its way into English through French as femelle.
  • No Limp in Limpid
    Limp (an unsteady walk) is a word that goes back to Middle English. It's unrelated to the adjective limpid (clear or calm), which comes from the Latin word limpidus.
  • No Noise in Noisome
    The adjective noisome has more to do with the sense of smell than the sense of sound. It's derived from the Old French word for "annoy," and means "objectionable, unwholesome, foul-smelling."

    Still, it's best not to take such passing insights too seriously. (And whether you like it or not, don't be surprised if one day noisome, for example, shows up in your dictionary as a rather pretentious synonym for noisy.)

    In The Oxford Guide to Etymology (2009), Philip Durkin points to "an interesting cultural phenomenon" whereby the authority of a Greek or Latin definition "is taken to be an effective arbiter of usage even in a quite different language some two thousand years later":

    [S]o far as the scientific study of language is concerned, such assertions about the authority of 'etymological meanings' are quite irrelevant; or rather, if they are relevant to anyone, it is to people studying attitudes toward language use, rather than to etymologists. It is one of the linguistic facts of life that words change both in form and in meaning.
    That helps to explain why the original meaning in Greek of the word etymology ("true sense of a word") is no longer the meaning of etymology in English ("the origin or derivation of a word").

    So above all else, keep manure in mind.

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