pa. ppl

Etymological fallacy

The etymological fallacy holds, erroneously, that the original or historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day meaning. This is a linguistic misconception, based on a mistaken idea concerning the etymology of words.


While etymology is sometimes taken to study the "true meaning" of a word, this is not what it does. It is the concern of etymology to study the history of a word. Thus it examines when and how a word entered the language; how its original form changed over the years and how its meaning evolved. Etymology, then, studies the true provenance of words, while in the etymological fallacy it is mistaken to study their true meaning.

Examples and processes

What this true meaning is, can only be decided by a study of usage. Language being a human process, it is subject to change, and usage is one of its aspects that undergo alteration over time. The nature of these changes varies, as the following examples demonstrate.

Widening of meaning

In the Middle Ages, the word boy meant "rough, unruly person" or "a low-ranking servant. The meaning of the word has widened considerably over the years, and there is no reason to claim that a boy is "really" an unruly human being.

Narrowing of meaning

A hound used to mean "any sort of dog", now its archaic meaning. It would be a fallacy to conclude that what we now call a "hound" could be any sort of dog: it is a dog used for the hunt, historical meanings notwithstanding.


The meaning of a word may change to connote higher status, as when knight, originally "servant" like German Knecht, came to mean "military knight" and subsequently "someone of high rank".


Conversely, the word knave originally meant "boy" and only gradually acquired its meaning of "person of low, despicable character".


It is perhaps especially tempting to misconstrue the "real" sense of a word when it has undergone a semantic change that seems less obvious. When it becomes known that lady derives from Old English hlæf-dige ("loaf-digger; kneader of bread"), and lord from hlafweard ("loaf-ward; ensurer, provider of bread"), it may be alluring to conclude that the wife's place is in the home, and that the husband's role is that of the breadwinner.


Reclaiming is the process by which an oppressed minority group adopts a formerly pejorative term for themselves and uses it in a positive manner. Examples would include faggot, dyke, (homosexuals), nigger (African Americans), redneck and military brat. Note that the reclaimed words are sometimes still seen as insulting if used by "outsiders". The political terms "Whig" and "Tory" were formerly insulting also, being names for outlaws.


Elements borrowed from other languages almost invariably undergo changes in meaning. This is one characteristic of borrowing.

  • Tongan taboo meant "set apart, consecrated", hence "forbidden". In English it retained the latter meaning, but shed the former. Greek anathema is similar, originally meaning a sacred offering, but later came to mean something cursed or outcast.
  • Latin-derived prevent, from prae ("before" + venire ("come"), may be thought to signify "to come before". In fact, even in Latin it had acquired a secondary meaning: "to arrive in time to ward something off", and that is the meaning that was carried over into English.

Semantic change in process

Language change is an ongoing process, which, however, meets with considerable resistance from users concerned with what they regard as its purity. Thus, when a word is seen to display a shift in meaning, this is often opposed on the grounds that the new usage does not reflect the word's "real" meaning.

  • To be oblivious of a fact originally meant to be forgetful of a fact. This is still its present-day meaning, but many people use it in the sense of to be ignorant of something. This, opponents argue, is incorrect: "ignorant" is not the original meaning of the word.

Speakers of a language pick up the meaning of a word from its usage. In day-to-day usage, most speakers of a language will rely on the context of a word or phrase and deduce the meaning from it. They will not even be aware of an etymology which may, in any case, not be at all clear, particularly if it is originated in a foreign or archaic language.


To what excesses the etymological fallacy may lead is to be seen when language users pick up the dictionary to find out from its etymological section what the "real meaning" of a word is supposed to be. Thus, a book on meditation once claimed that the word meditate derives from Latin meditari—which is true—and that that Latin word means "frequent"—which could not have been wider off the mark: in fact, it means "to measure, to study". The misunderstanding must have arisen from an incomplete grasp of etymological notation: thus, the explanation may have been:
<— meditat-, pa. ppl. stem of Lat. meditari, frequent. f. IE. *med-, *mēd-, *mod- measure. . .''

However, this has nothing to do with "frequent". It says that Latin meditari derives from a Indo-European stem that signified a frequentative sense of "measure": "to measure over and over again". Faulty application of the etymological apparatus has led to an etymological fallacy.


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