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History of Philosophy Book Club Message Board › Logical Fallacy #10: Etymological Fallacy

Logical Fallacy #10: Etymological Fallacy

user 6899431
Group Organizer
Silver Spring, MD
Post #: 94
This fallacy occurs when a word’s usage has changed over time, but its original meaning is invoked to support or discredit an argument. For example, someone who refers to a woman as a “gossip” might be reproached for using an unflattering term; in their defense they say that the word “gossip” has a benign meaning, derived from the Old English “godsibb”--a “sponsor” or “godparent”. In Middle English it was extended to “any familiar acquaintance...especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk". (source: Online Etymology Dictionary). However benign the term might have been hundreds of years ago, today it is only used pejoratively.

Sometimes the etymological fallacy involves a question of semantics rather than logic. I’ve noticed in the last several years that the term “begging the question”, which in philosophy refers to asserting an unproven premise as fact, is frequently used by people in the media to shift attention from one subject to another. For example, “Poor children often have a short attention span, which begs the question of why they can’t concentrate. The answer is simple: they are hungry.” Should this “misuse” of “begging the question” be brought to the speaker’s attention, or should it be used as an example of the natural evolution of language? Among linguists, proponents of the first position are called prescriptivists, those of the second, descriptivists.

The following article on the etymological fallacy is taken from As usual, feel free to add your own comments.

"Etymological Fallacy"


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)

  • "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)
A former member
Post #: 71
The etymological fallacy can be a very big problem in ordinary conversation.

I see evidence of this all of the time when I view day time TV court TV. This is shown often when the use of words as understood by one person of a certain culture are not understood in the same way by another.

For example, sometimes a judge who is presiding can misinterpret the use of a word and connotation depending on whether the plaintiff or defendent is Caucasian or African American or some other culture.

Putting aside the ridiculous nature of some of the cases, I have noticed that miscommunication and fallacies can occur from the perspective of the judge. Often words are not sharp delineations of intended meaning.

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