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Talk:Etymological fallacy

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Inappropriate examplesEdit

I am unhappy about the choice of examples on this page. 'Boy' may only mean 'male human child' in the writer's dialect of English, but in many parts of the world - South Africa, parts of the USA for example - it still has the connotation of inferiority and is regarded as a racist term. In Britain, also, the meaning 'assistant' is by no means dead, though perhaps now confined to 'trades' - i.e. occupations involving primarily manual skills. A plumber who recently repaired my central heating had a 'boy' older than he was. Similarly the association 'boys are unruly' is very much part of our social conditioning: here in Britain, the papers regularly use 'gang of boys' even when girls are involved too, but 'abuse of children' even when all the children are male. For a wikipedia entry we need examples which are independent of dialect.

There is a converse fallacy to the etymological fallacy: that 'how I use a word' is 'the way everyone always uses and has always used the word'. For example, I recently heard a pundit on the radio advocating that women should behave inconsiderately because 'manners maketh man' and therefore politeness is only relevant to males and is an instrument of male domination. This commits the fallacy twice over (alongside other fallacies).

The last section, on Extremes, is not an example of the etymological fallacy, and does not belong here. It is an example of 'a little learning is a dangerous thing', commonly known nowadays as the 'wikipedia fallacy'.OldTownAdge (talk) 10:16, 8 May 2009 (UTC)

Agree that the last section does not belong here. I will therefore delete it now. Ignorance of the meaning of an abbreviation (like "frequent.") is not an "etymological fallacy." It's simply ignorance of an abbreviation. A comparison -- The term "ANOVA" is often used in statistics for models that analyze variance. If I were to read an article where statistics are mentioned, and I misinterpreted that term to mean that the authors were arguing against the PBS Series NOVA, I would not be committing a "statistical fallacy." I would just be grossly ignorant about the terminology of statistics. It certainly isn't an "extreme" version of any kind of "statistical fallacy." And anyone who is tempted to revert because this section has a "source" -- please realize that the "source" is only to the quoted etymology, not to the actual content of the section and its argument about what constitutes an extreme case of an "etymological fallacy."
Also, there needs to be at least at least some reference to the fact that etymologies often are actually useful for thinking about and learning about the meanings of words. Yes, it is a fallacy to conclude that a word means something now only because it is derived from another word that hasn't been used for a thousand years. And it's a fallacy to assume that a modern meaning is incorrect because it conflicts with such an etymology. But, on the other hand, there is a good reason why so many dictionaries contain etymologies. Most sources for words do in fact have some clear relationship to the modern usage of the word, so learning about the etymology and history of meanings and usage of a word can give insight into its modern meaning, just as the history of a country or a person can give insight into their current actions. So, not all use of etymology to think about the meaning of a word is a "fallacy." (talk) 18:53, 16 September 2009 (UTC)

the examples are not very good, and the article is also starved for references, especially references establishing notability of the concept. The concept certainly exists, but the question is does it need its own article. Here is a decent example, the Old English word gethrofta is glossed as "one who sits on the same rowing-bench, companion". This is presented as two possible meanings by the glossators, while all evidence we have indicates that the first is simply the etymology, while the second is the only attested meaning. The etymological fallacy is, then, the false assumption that a word may still be used etymologically while it is not in fact so used any longer. An exactly parallel case would be a glossing of companion as "somebody with whom one shares bread, partner", or comrade "room-mate, partner", or fellow "one who pays a fee, partner". Perhaps a similar example would be world "age of mankind, place inhabited by mankind" (while in fact world today means a place, not an age). Another type of etymological fallacy is the translation by etymological cognate (false friends): translating German faul "lazy" as foul, you have correctly recognized that faul and foul have an identical etymology, but you have failed to observe that they do not mean the same thing and thus do not translate one another. Perhaps this page should be merged into false friend. --dab (𒁳) 15:10, 12 July 2010 (UTC)

All of the listed examples are fallacious. Evidence of absence, false friends and anecdotal evidence, total POV BS

- Just because there are fewer examples of hound meaning just 'dog' does not mean it is incorrect to refer to any dog as a hound.

- Knight obviously was not equivalent to servant, or they would have just called them servants. The increase of 'rank' is literally inherent, it just means 'servant (of a higher rank)'

- Same as above, knave was never used in English to be equivalent to 'boy.' It meant 'boy (of a lower rank)'

- Stupidest one so far. 'Breadwinner' is still a valid term, basically the household equivalent to Lord, which would make the household equivalent to Lady the 'Breadmaker.' Absolutely valid context.

- The only thing wrong with Chase's conclusion is the word 'merely.' Logic is the manipulation of words, yes, but also more than that.

- An apology is no less a speech in defense today than it was in 500 BC Greece.

- Anyone criticising the contrary terms in 'grow smaller' or 'climb down' must have real trouble doing the equation 5 x -5 The Quiet Pirate (talk) 21:29, 4 August 2017 (UTC)

Your understanding of language is naive. "Knight obviously was not equivalent to servant, or they would have just called them servants" contains the following assumptions:
  • The word "servant" existed back then.
  • People do not invent new words for a thing if another word for the thing already exists.
  • All people at all places use the same word for the same thing. (If this assumption is wrong, people can use "servant" in the North and "knight" in the South for the same thing, for example.)
I don't know about the first assumption, but the other two are obviously wrong. Your other claims are equally doubtful, but since the purpose of this page is improving the article, I will refrain from taking them apart. --Hob Gadling (talk) 06:36, 5 August 2017 (UTC)
"Your understanding of language is naive." Feels weird to say here, but uh, citation needed.
  • Serf, servant and slave were all 'English translations' of Latin words that existed before even the advent of Old English.
  • If it ain't broke don't fix it, also how am I supposed to prove a negative?
  • To imply that Knight itself has to mean the same thing in English as it did in German is a false friend
Also no, I think you chose the only point I gave that has any doubt whatsoever, I would like a second opinion. And who's to say us having this debate won't result in a better entry? I think it's worth a shot. The Quiet Pirate (talk) 02:33, 11 August 2017 (UTC)

POV on true meaningEdit

The article currently claims:

A variant of the etymological fallacy involves looking for the "true" meaning of words by delving into their etymologies.

This statement has several problems, including at least:

o It makes a presupposition about what the true meaning of a word is.

o It overlooks that this is often quite right and proper, say in the case of the so-often abused word ``decimate.

o It does not make any discussion of the issue of when a word should be considered having changed in meaning, when a new meaning is a misuse, when an old meaning becomes (too) archaic, and similar. (This, incidentally, is a very tricky problem, with aspects of the sorites paradox combined with issues of geography and demography.) —Preceding unsigned comment added by Michael Eriksson (talkcontribs) 12:44, 11 August 2010 (UTC)

  • It does not look like a presupposition to me – "true" is quoted to indicate it's problematic to talk about "true" meanings anyway.
  • I agree that the article would need a discussion of etymology vs. "present" meaning, which is indeed tricky. Perhaps this is already discussed elsewhere (Etymology, Language change...?) and could be linked from here.
  • Incidentally, Sihler (Language History) gives "decimate" as an example of an etymological fallacy :-) Who decides on the true meaning? --ἀνυπόδητος (talk) 21:50, 9 December 2010 (UTC)
In my reading, "true" (quote marks included) is used to indicate that the meaning is, in fact, not the true one. To me, they do not in anyway remove the presupposition, but introduce an element of disparagement. At best, then, a reformulation for less ambiguity is needed.Michael Eriksson (talk) 11:46, 14 December 2010 (UTC)
I see what you mean. At the moment, I can't think of a more neutral way to bring the point across. People committing an etymological fallacy typically argue on the lines of "This word does not mean X but Y because its etymology is so-and-so", so it's hard to imagine a way of conferring this to our readers without suggesting that the fallacy (or the one committing it) is concerned with an alleged true meaning as opposed to the one that is actually used in current everyday speech. At least two of the sources use a similar wording.
This seems to be a more general problem with the fallacy articles, one of the more extreme examples being the sentence "Gee, it can't be worth much if someone local thought of it first." in Invented Here. If you can think of a phrasing that makes clear the fallaciousness of the arguments while being not disparaging towards people who use them, feel free to edit. --ἀνυπόδητος (talk) 12:36, 14 December 2010 (UTC)

In the case of the phrase "anti-Semitism" it is evident that historically the phrase is used to identify Hatred of a Jewish person or collective. While in common culture we see a shift of People making the case that, Arab hate is also considered anti-Semitism. While this may not have been the intended meaning of the phrase, its seems as though the meaning of it is evolving as per culture. Associating Anti-Semitism with Arabs is not yet part of common culture but we see that articles are starting to appear that use anti-Semitism be associated with Hatred of an Arab or collective. It should be stated that the word "Muslim" and "Arab" are NOT interchangeable. — Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:54, 23 May 2015 (UTC)

Who defines meaningEdit

I find this silly. If it is so that there is a fallacy based on 'historical meaning' and 'current meaning' then it is easy to conceive that the 'new' or 'current' meaning find a new word to express itself rather then completely alter a word, especially if this word itself derives/includes/uses other ones. And, who/what "defines" meaning anyway? This is a political act and yet this article is as if "meaning" was a fixed proposition rather than the result of socio-political struggle. "Meaning" does not just appear. It is constructed indeed. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 22:47, 13 February 2011 (UTC)

I don't think meaning is constructed except in a few cases where new objects (like a computer mouse) are consciously named. Changes of meaning just happen, like changes of pronunciation. No one ever devised the Great Vowel Shift, and no one ever actually "altered" the word hound, deciding it should not refer to all kinds of dogs any more (see Semantic change).
The question who defines meaning is the crucial point. No one, actually – the sense of a word is how the majority of speakers use it; and this is, of course, a source for misunderstandings and fruitless discussions about the "real" meaning. We should have an article about this, but I can't find one. --ἀνυπόδητος (talk) 09:46, 14 February 2011 (UTC)--ἀνυπόδητος (talk) 09:46, 14 February 2011 (UTC)

Suggestion for an exampleEdit

I think that a good example could be sourced to unmi 23:28, 21 March 2012 (UTC)


I don't find this to be a particularly good example. I thought hound just meant dog generally. I thought the article was going to say the opposite thing. --WikiDonn (talk) 21:26, 26 June 2012 (UTC)

My dictionary (Cassell) defines a hound as a "dog used in hunting"; see also [1]. However, I certainly wouldn't object if you exchanged this for a better example :-) --ἀνυπόδητος (talk) 08:23, 27 June 2012 (UTC)


Reading the original essay, it seems to me that Tolkien didn't mean the same thing by "etymological fallacy" as this article is about.

I think Tolkien meant that we should not be misled into thinking that Old English words which look similar to Modern English words are related gssq (talk) 04:11, 23 July 2012 (UTC)

Yeah. This whole page really doesn't sound like Tolkien at all! --BenMcLean (talk) 05:15, 18 May 2013 (UTC)


I think this article could use some NPOV. These examples seem controversial. I'd like to hear the explanation why it would pass muster to say that someone gypped you out of your money, but not that he jewed you out of it. Wnt (talk) 18:50, 25 October 2012 (UTC)

The "gyp" example is poor for a lot of reasons. In addition to what you mentioned, there's also the fact that offense is a subjective thing, so someone saying that they, personally, find something offensive and giving a reason is a statement of fact not an argument. (talk) 00:05, 28 August 2013 (UTC)

Protagoras (dialogue)Edit

Plato represents Socrates as arguing against the idea of shifting definitions in the Protagoras, the Euthydemus (dialogue) and many other places. Many great philosophers would strongly disagree with much of what this page says. I expect that most metaphysical libertarians, for example, would argue against Compatibilism from the idea of the word "freedom" or the term "free will" having an essential, true meaning. Many great philosophies have held that words correspond to true essences. This page dogmatically takes controversial positions on these and a whole slew of other philosophy of language-related objections. --BenMcLean (talk) 05:11, 18 May 2013 (UTC)

Tagged for cleanupEdit

See the rest of the talk page above for specifics, especially the last comment about philosophical disagreements. This is NOT a logical fallacy, but rather an informal fallacy. (that needs more discussion than a "See Also" link) Additionally, it is POV to presume that the definition of a word is what some plurality of humans determine it to be. Many words (such as xenophobic, homophobic) don't mean the same thing to everybody. The fallacy is only invoked when used to base an argument on a word's definition alone. Examples of when something is vs. isn't a fallacy would be good. -- (talk) 13:39, 22 April 2015 (UTC)

validity of assuming this is a fallacy in the first placeEdit

I dispute that this is a fallacy AT ALL. It is more like an ad hoc movement by people who doesn't understand that words are intended to have a meaning, and that changing it (through history) renders their arguments invalid. Why is this considered a fallacy? — Preceding unsigned comment added by Bodhidharmazen (talkcontribs) 15:53, 14 August 2015 (UTC)

Words and meanings obviously do change throughout history or you wouldn't have posted that in modern 21st-century English, would you? Equinox 13:04, 28 June 2017 (UTC)

Isn't this just a typical semantic fallacy, 'argument is invalid if argument relies on contrary definition?' The Quiet Pirate (talk) 21:29, 4 August 2017 (UTC)

Should this even be a unique page?Edit

After some thought, I can't even think of a single etymologically fallacious argument that isn't also some other, more accurate genetic fallacy. I assert that this page should be chopped up and dispersed among the other genetic fallacy pages i.e. the association fallacy page, the non sequitur, even the ad hominem (circumstantial), and to make it so any search for 'etymological fallacy' redirects to the genetic fallacy page, with a statement on the genetic fallacy page explaining the situation for anyone who gets redirected and is confused. If no one disagrees, I'll go ahead and do the edit to the other sections myself in about a week, then tag this AfD The Quiet Pirate (talk) 22:42, 4 August 2017 (UTC)

You misunderstand the purpose of an encyclopedia. What we do here is:
  • explain an existing concept,
  • point the reader to existing literature about the concept.
We just reproduce what reliable sources say. We do not decide that a concept makes no sense, invent new concepts, or develop ideas about the concept. If you want to do that, please go somewhere else, such as a scientific journal, a blog or a forum. --Hob Gadling (talk) 06:26, 5 August 2017 (UTC)
That is not what I meant to suggest. My premise was not to conclude that the concept of the etymological fallacy makes no sense, but that the original author had made various conclusions without what I understand to be sufficient proofs for a Wikipedia article. Perhaps the tags that were already there are enough, now you mention it I'll try do what the tags say and see if I can come up with an article I think does deserve to exist. I'm pretty new, so I'll just draft it here? ALSO: Is there a fallacy for if someone asserts the modern definition is more relevant like a reverse etymological fallacy? I feel like that would be helpful to mention if so, I can't seem to find one though.
The etymological fallacy is an informal genetic fallacy holding that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be derived from an historical usage. This is a linguistic misconception, 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. This does not, however, show that etymology is irrelevant in any way, nor does it attempt to prove such.
  • Prerequisites
The etymological fallacy occurs when a criticism is made that a word's historical usage is more relevant than any other usage of the same word, or when an allegation that a certain definition or usage for a word is objectively either right or wrong as justified by an appeal to the word's etymology. Not simply any criticism of a word's usage constitutes a fallacy, the easiest way to prevent any argument from employing an etymological fallacy is to provide more justification for the validity of their alleged 'true' definition than simply the word's own history.
  • Examples
Dilapidated should only be used in reference to products made of stone, because it is derived from the Latin word for stone
Decimate should not be used to refer to a reduction greater than 10%"
You can't use manure to mean fermented animal dung as it first meant to work the land
It's offensive to say one was gypped in reference to being stolen from or cheated as it is [rumoured to be] derived from Gypsy
How's that? The Quiet Pirate (talk) 00:38, 11 August 2017 (UTC)
Return to "Etymological fallacy" page.