Etymological fallacy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In classical Aristotelian logic, an etymological fallacy is committed when an argument makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on that word's etymology.[1] It is a genetic fallacy that holds a word's historical meaning to be its sole valid meaning and that its present-day meaning is invalid.[1] This is a linguistic misconception,[2]. The inverse negative form of the fallacy treats the current meaning as the sole true meaning, requiring negation of the etymology from which the current meaning was derived.


Ancient Greeks taught that a word's meaning could be tracked across time, creating a distinction between formal and informal language, with a similar practice existing among ancient Vedic scholars. In modern linguistic anthropology, semiotics and semantics are intertwined, and reflective of a society's culture across time. The discipline operates on the principle that current meaning derives from previous meaning, which has embedded itself in the predicate of subsequent derivatives. Removing the etymological history thus removes necessary context from which present meaning is ontologically dependent on.

Occurrence and examples[edit]

An etymological fallacy becomes possible when a word's meaning shifts over time from its original meaning. Such changes can include a narrowing or widening of scope, or change of connotation (amelioration or pejoration). In some cases, modern usage can shift to the point where the new meaning has no evident connection to its etymon.[1]

One example of a word which has greatly changed its meaning is decimation, which originally referred to reduction by a tenth, but now typically refers to complete destruction or a drastic reduction.[3]

Another word with a controversial meaning and a misleading etymology is anti-semitism. When the word was coined in the 19th century, it explicitly defined Jewish people as a racial class. Modern anthropology and biology overwhelmingly reject the concept of race, and the term Semite is largely obsolete, with the notable exception of classifying languages. Thus, the argument asserts that anti-semitism is not restricted to only anti-Jewish beliefs, but that opposition to other would-be Semitic peoples is also anti-semitism.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Sihler, Andrew (2000). Language History. Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science. Series IV, Current issues in linguistic theory. Vol. 191. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 131–133. ISBN 90-272-3698-4.
  2. ^ Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). "Etymological Fallacy". The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary s.v. decimation, decimate
  4. ^ Lipstadt, Deborah (2019). Antisemitism: Here and Now. Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-80524337-6.

Further reading[edit]