The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds, erroneously, that the historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day meaning. This is a linguistic misconception, mistakenly identifying a word's current semantic field with its etymology. An argument only constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology, thus distinguishing an alleged "true" (etymological) meaning from the workaday use.
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.
- The word hound originally simply meant "dog" in general. This usage is now archaic or poetic only, and hound now almost exclusively refers to dogs bred for the chase in particular.
- 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".
- The word lady derives from Old English hlæf-dige ("loaf-digger; kneader of bread"), and lord from hlafweard ("loaf-ward; ensurer, provider of bread"). No connection with bread is retained in the current meaning of either word.
Not every change in meaning provokes an etymological fallacy; but such changes are frequently the basis of inaccurate arguments.
- From the fact that logos is Greek for "word", Stuart Chase concluded in his book The Tyranny of Words that logic was mere manipulation of words.
- Some dictionaries of old languages do not distinguish glosses (meanings) from etymologies, as when Old English geþofta is defined as "one who sits on the same rowing bench; companion". Here the only attested meaning is the second one, while the first is simply the word's etymology.
- Usage of the word gyp "cheat" has been described as being politically incorrect because it is probably derived from Gypsy.
- Phrases like to grow smaller or to climb down have been criticised for being incoherent, based on the "true" meanings of grow and climb.
While the assumption that a word may still be used etymologically can be fallacious, the conclusion from such reasoning is not necessarily false. Some words can retain their meaning for many centuries, with extreme cases like mouse, which denoted the same animal in the Proto-Indo-European language several thousand years ago (as Template:PIE). Claiming "Your use of the word X is based on an etymological fallacy, therefore the use is wrong" constitutes an argument from fallacy.
Consequently, etymological arguments do not answer the question when a word should be considered having changed in meaning, when a new meaning is a misuse, when an old meaning becomes archaic, and similar. Such problems are complex and are treated in the field of lexical semantics.
- Kenneth G. Wilson (1993) "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English", article "Etymological Fallacy"
- 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 9027236984.
- Hutton, Christopher (1998). Linguistics and Third Reich. Routledge studies in the history of linguistics. 1. Routledge. p. 1. ISBN 9780203021019. http://books.google.com/?id=zJ9YUflEreYC. 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)."
- Kirkpatrick et al. (1989). The Cassell Concise English Dictionary. London. pp. 761, 802. ISBN 030431806X.
- Chase, Stuart (1938). The Tyranny of Words. p. 226. ISBN 0156923947.
- "The Etymological Fallacy". fallacyfiles.org. http://www.fallacyfiles.org/etymolog.html. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
- Henry, Sweet (2009-05-30). The Practical Study of Languages; a Guide for Teachers and Learners. BiblioBazaar, LLC. p. 88. ISBN 9781110370337. http://books.google.com/books?id=F-bI7XDviv8C&pg=PA88. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Fortson, Benjamin W., IV (2004), Indo-European Language and Culture, Blackwell Publishing, p. 61, ISBN 1-4051-0316-7
- Gula, Robert J. (2002). Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies. pp. 48, 161. ISBN 0966190858.
- Steinmetz, Sol (2008). Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meanings. Random House Reference. ISBN 0375426124.