Etymological fallacy

The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning.[1] This is a linguistic misconception,[2] and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology.[1]

An etymological fallacy may involve looking for the true meaning of words by delving into their etymologies,[3] or claiming that a word should be used in a particular way because it has a particular etymology.[1]

Occurrence and examplesEdit

An etymological fallacy becomes possible when a word has changed its meaning over time. Such changes can include a shift in scope (narrowing or widening of meanings) or of connotation (amelioration or pejoration). In some cases, meanings can also shift completely, so that the etymological meaning has no evident connection to the current meaning.[1]

Ancient Greeks believed that there was a "true meaning" of a word, distinct from a common use. There is evidence that a similar belief existed among ancient Vedic scholars. In modern days, this fallacy can be found in some arguments of language purists.[1]

Not every change in meaning leads to an etymological fallacy, but such changes are frequently the basis of inaccurate arguments.

An example of a word which has greatly changed its meaning is decimation, which originally referred to reduction by a tenth, but now usually means a drastic reduction or complete destruction.[4] Insisting that only the original meaning is "true" constitutes an etymological fallacy.[1]

An example of a word that did not change meaning, yet has a misleading etymology, is antisemitism. The structure of the word suggests that it is about hatred of Semitic people, but it was used as soon as it was coined in the 19th century to specifically refer to anti-Jewish beliefs and practices. Usage from approximately 1860–1950 also included referring to specifically Jewish practices and people as "Semitic", although these have generally faded from common usage, while antisemitism remains. People will sometimes base arguments that take the etymological meaning at face value, however, to play down or suggest a different or broader agenda for antisemites other than anti-Jewishness on the basis of the word.[5]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f Sihler, Andrew (2000). Language History. Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science. Series IV, Current issues in linguistic theory. 191. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 90-272-3698-4.
  2. ^ Kenneth G. Wilson (1993) "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English", article "Etymological Fallacy"
  3. ^ Hutton, Christopher (1998). Linguistics and Third Reich. Routledge studies in the history of linguistics. 1. Routledge. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-203-02101-9. Retrieved 2010-08-01. [...] allegedly absurd beliefs such as the etymological 'fallacy' (i.e. the assertion that the true meaning of a word is to be sought in its etymology).
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary s.v. decimation, decimate
  5. ^ Lipstadt, Deborah (2019). Antisemitism: Here and Now. Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-80524337-6.

Further readingEdit