GENERAL – Language – the Etymological Fallacy

Now and then in the course of a discussion somewhere someone will claim “X means Y because X…” and then either quote the first or original usage of X, or else break X down into its constituent elements and then insist that the sum of these parts is what “X really means.”

I call this second type of fallacy the etymological fallacy. It is a fallacy because the standard for what a word or expression means, at least the empirical standard necessary to make anything else about language make sense, is that a word means what the language community says it means, and the language community says that in the way it uses that word – actual observable language behavior. Any other standard is solipsistic peevology based on nothing more than what the peevologist personally – “logically” – thinks the word should mean.

Logic is wonderful but even the most rigorously logical theory cannot be allowed to trump the data.

“Quite a few” – So here is an example of what I mean. Any English speaker knows what the expression “quite a few means”. It means “many”, it has nothing whatever to do with “a few” and it is quite immaterial that the sum of the parts of that expression does in fact mean “a few” – what the sum of the parts is supposed to mean does not trump the observable use of that expression.

Oh and a side note – the standard of meaning is what the pertinent language community deems the word to mean, not how you hear it, not “Well, that’s what it means to me.” No. Consumerism is not the Unified Field Theory of reality and you are not the customer and you are not always right no matter what legions of salesmen pandering to you have been telling you from the time you were first propped up in front of a televison to start your indocrination and your “own truth” is very likely not true, especially when it comes to language.

Ahuacatl and guacamole – The Nahuatl word for ‘testicle’ is “ahaucatl” and very early (pre-Nahuatl) it was applied to the avocado by extension – imagine a nutsack hanging in a tree and you can see the resemblance immediately. (ahuacatl > aguacate > avogato > avocado) The Nahuatl word for ‘sauce” is “molli” (The -tl in “ahuacatl suffix is not part of the root. The –li in “molli” is the same suffix in the form it takes when it follows an “l”.)

So when you put the two together you get “ahuacamolli” which is original of the word that was borrowed into Spanish and on into English as “guacamole”.

The etymological fallacy – Is there anyone here who thinks “testicle sauce” is any kind of good translation for “guacamole”, that it accurately represents the meaning of that word?

I hope not. And believe me, there are hundreds and thousands of similar if not so obviously ridiculous examples of this. We see this kind of mistake all the time.

Man – etymologically “man” meant “human”. It is still used that way in some contexts and not in others and so we have to say that the semantic load of the word is in flux – fluxxy enough that we see some real bar brawls over it.

WomanYes of course the etymology of “woman” includes “man” in the sense of “human” mentioned above. It also includes “wīf”, the ancestral form of the modern word “wife’, but that hardly “means” that “woman” implies that someone is married.

Then there is false etymology.

Woman – This one is from Commenter Paul: “I’ll admit that the majority of this pretty much went straight over my head, but it brought to mind the time I read some yahoo making the argument that “woman” was derived from “woe of man” and it made me want to punch faces.”

Me too, Paul, me too.

Human – I have seen this spelled, and unironically, as “humyn”. Makes me want to punch faces. This one is just illiterate. It  relies on fucking up on the syllable boundary.

 

So that’s the etymological fallacy. Kill it whenever you see it.

 

 

 

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  • SensitiveThug

    Very funny and interesting story about language, that. Guacamole=testicle sauce=makes me laugh.

    As for other examples, I used to think that “femin-ism” and “naz-ism” shared a common root word, but that’s not true. They’re two different things.

  • Ginkgo

    Nation, nationalism and Nazism do in fact have the same root and no, that doesn’t make them all equivalent in meaning.

  • http://thedamnedoldeman.com TDOM

    Timely post. I just scheduled (for tomorrow) a post to my blog ranting about the use of the term “weapons of mass destruction.” Apparently Federal Law includes small explosive devices in the definition. Thus Tsarnaev is now charged with using a WMD in the Boston bombing. This is in stark contrast to the public perception of what actually constitutes a WMD which is usually equated with weapons too heinous to be used even in war. Was GW Bush actually looking for a grenade or mine in Iraq? If so, his failure to find even one makes the US military appear rather incompetent.

    Anyhow, your article made me think of a line from a poem I wrote many years ago (I’ve apparently lost the poem, but recall the line):

    Myrmidons, taught only to obey,
    Thoughtless victims of language decay

    I find it interesting to go back to the original meanings of words to see how the language has evolved. Evolution is a natural part of language. Decay, on the other hand, is a deliberate watering down or twisting of language intended to confuse or obfuscate meaning.

  • Ginkgo

    “Evolution is a natural part of language. Decay, on the other hand, is a deliberate watering down or twisting of language intended to confuse or obfuscate meaning.”

    Doing this deliberately is hard to do, but it requires huge, coordinated and persistent effort. English is historically n bottom-up language and has no cultural organ like the Academie Francaise. On top of that , it is multipolar, which makes the coordination harder. But it can be done.

    “Apparently Federal Law includes small explosive devices in the definition. Thus Tsarnaev is now charged with using a WMD in the Boston bombing. This is in stark contrast to the public perception of what actually constitutes a WMD which is usually equated with weapons too heinous to be used even in war. ”

    Tlak about timely, this prefigures the next post on language. What’s going on here is not the etymological fallacy but rather simple multivalence. The term has different meanings depending on what community is using it. DOD has one meaning and DOJ works off another, and that’s the disconnect in this case. The DOJ meaning usage is hmmmm…. stretched.

    It’s like the question of whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. It’s both and either, depending on whether it’s grocers or botanists talking.

  • Snake Oil Baron

    Some book I read ages ago discussed the concept of “what is it we say we know when we say we know the meaning of a word”. After considering and dismissing things like “definition” and “etymology” it came to the conclusion of “the meaning of a word is the set of conventions governing it’s use” which is what you’ve said here in different terms. Like how the N-word came from the Latin word for black but was used so derisively for so long it became to mean something far more insulting than just “black”.

    An example of the “meaning” of something not being a definision or etymology is how different the term “feminism” is in the dictionary from the real world. Feminists refer to the dictionary to show how nice it makes feminism sound but even they don’t embrace the dictionary definition of “seeking equality of the sexes” or “seeking to advance womens’ rights” and such. It is a supremacist doctrine; that is what they “mean” when they say they want more “feminism”.

  • Theodmann

    When “woman” was still “wīfmann”, “wīf” didn’t necessarily mean a married woman either, but just a woman.

    With *humyn, it’s more a mistaken morpheme boundary than syllable boundary. I suppose most people who read this blog won’t know or care about the difference, but as a fellow linguist, I feel compelled to point that out.

    I read somewhere that Nazi was from Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitspartei, but I don’t think I believe that. Maybe that’s where the spelling came from, but the first two syllables of “National” are pronounced in German identically (phonologically if not phonetically) to “Nazi”.

    More importantly, what does this do to the argument I’ve seen GirlWritesWhat (and others, come to think of it) put forward in a couple of places that the term Patriarchy is inherently sexist, since it places the blame for all that’s wrong with gender roles in society upon the “rule of fathers”? Isn’t “rule of fathers” an example of an etymological definition? I’m pretty sure the general English-speaking public is not fully cognizant of the origin of that term, and the feminist definition is probably about as strong in the public consciousness as the other, more traditional meaning.

  • EquilibriumShift

    Theodmann,

    I see your point re: Patriarchy. That word isn’t sexist because it contains Patr-, it is sexist because of the first part of the explanation, “it places the blame for all that’s wrong with gender roles in society…” on one gender, rather than on the “rule of the fathers”. Men, men, men. They are the all powerful group who act collectively to keep women under subjugation.

    So while it superficially looks similar, the “patriarchy is sexist” argument passes the “a word means what the language community says it means” test.

  • Ginkgo

    Theoedemann, I always understood “Nazi” to be short for “National….”. That other etymology is too stretched.

    “that the term Patriarchy is inherently sexist, since it places the blame for all that’s wrong with gender roles in society upon the “rule of fathers”? Isn’t “rule of fathers” an example of an etymological definition? I’m pretty sure the general English-speaking public is not fully cognizant of the origin of that term, ”

    ES covered this. But you do get the sense people are objecting based on an etymological fallacy too.

    “With *humyn, it’s more a mistaken morpheme boundary than syllable boundary. I suppose most people who read this blog won’t know or care about the difference, but as a fellow linguist, I feel compelled to point that out.”

    You are completely right. I just don’t want to have to add a bunch of footnotes in these posts, so I leave out “morpheme” and technical jargon like that.

  • EquilibriumShift

    Completely OT, but since we have two linguists in the house…

    has anyone ever tried to quantify accents? What I mean is, of course we can qualify them (cot -caught merger, etc.), but has anyone ever recorded people speaking and measured things like pitch, pauses in between words, inflections, etc?

    If I was a linguist, I would try to develop a computer program that could replicate various accents by combining the qualitative measurements with quantitative measurements like that.

  • Ginkgo

    ES, that’s a standard part of phonetics. Consonants vary based on the blend of various pitches they consist of, so for instances p,t,k share some features of pitch with each other and then also p shares some with db, f and m, t shares some with d,s, and n, k shares some with g, kh and ng and so on.

    Vowels vary based on their pitch contours too. Tones are harder because even in a pitch tone system (there are several types of tone system), the tone system is not tied to specific pitches but rather pitch is relativized in the listener’s cognition somehow. I don’t understand it and the last time I was interested it wasn’t well understood.

  • HidingFromtheDinosaurs

    To give an example of this sort of thing from my personal experience, I once took an English literature class in which a woman defended her identification of a scene in John Gardner’s ‘Grendel’, in which no sexual activity, forced or otherwise, took place, as a ‘rape scene’ based on the Latin root of the word ‘rape’ having a definition which included grabbing someone and lifting them into the air.

    Something is seriously wrong when an argument like that can be taken seriously, and it dovetails quite nicely with the continuing efforts to expand the definition of ‘rape’.

    On an unrelated note, does anyone here happen to know of a slur in English (or any European language, for that matter) which denotes a young woman who is both sexually promiscuous and violently unruly? I’ve been trying to find a good equivalent for the Japanese ‘zubekou’, but I’m drawing a complete blank. I thought I’d ask here, because some of the people on this site have studied language for a lot longer than I thought that some of them might also have a fairly extensive knowledge of gendered slurs as a result of participating in these discussions.

  • P John Irons

    On whether complaints about the usage of “Patriarchy” are an instance of the Etymological fallacy:

    Isn’t this another example of the “are tomatoes fruit or vegetables situation”?

    On the one hand one has the Feminist community where “Patriarchy” is a term of art that means, well, whatever they defined it to mean.

    On the other is the broader community as a whole for whom patriarchy still denotes something relating to patriarchs, i.e fathers and men.

    The criticism is not so much an etymological confusion that is not aware that the term means something else within the first context.

    Rather, it is criticism that points out that since Feminism portrays itself as a social justice movement, and aims to impact the broader community, then surely it should be cognisant of the broader language communities and what words mean to them.

    Why on earth did they deliberately choose a term of art for a concept if they should have been aware that term could be misunderstood? Unless the misunderstanding was an intended feature of the choice of terminology.

    And that is, I think, a valid criticism that does not fall prey to the Etymological Fallacy.

  • Adiabat

    P John Irons: That’s how I’ve always understood the complaints about the term ‘patriarchy’. I don’t know if there’s a term in linguistics but basically what feminists are doing is ‘connotation-stealing’ by using the word with a changed meaning. They hope to use an existing word to describe something else yet still generate the same connotations in the minds of the audience. This kind of thing is particularly common in postmodernist thought. And it works unfortunately, especially on the minds of young undergraduates.

    HidingFromtheDinosaurs: “On an unrelated note, does anyone here happen to know of a slur in English (or any European language, for that matter) which denotes a young woman who is both sexually promiscuous and violently unruly?”

    “Skank” and “slag” are the first that come to mind. Depends what you mean by “violently unruly”. Slag generally includes ‘uncouth’ and the general low-level violence often stereotypically associated with the lower classes. Other than that I don’t know, violence doesn’t tend to get associated with women in slurs.

  • Ginkgo

    JP,
    “Isn’t this another example of the “are tomatoes fruit or vegetables situation”?

    That too and as I said, that’s a post to come. The issue is whe is something technical jargon and when does a sub-community start to feel entitield to have therir jargon supplant common usage.

  • HidingFromtheDinosaurs

    Adiabat:

    I need something like that, but with the added implication of an outlaw; the sort of person who might be in a street gang and go around beating people up. As you say, there really don’t seem to be many English words which associate women with violence, so I may just have to footnote it.

  • Ginkgo

    ““On an unrelated note, does anyone here happen to know of a slur in English (or any European language, for that matter) which denotes a young woman who is both sexually promiscuous and violently unruly?”

    “Wench” is the old word for the first part of that, but wenches are round and cuddly. OTOH it seems to carry quite a sting.

    “Virago” captures the sexual license and violence, but doesn’t really refer to young women.

  • HidingFromtheDinosaurs

    Ginkgo:

    Thanks, but that’s still not quite what I’m looking for. I guess ‘zubekou’ will have to join ‘sukeban’ (leader of a group of delinquent girls) on my list of words that simply do not translate directly. Oh well, it’s just a project I’ve been working on in my spare time, so it won’t have any serious impact on anything.

    I do think it’s an interesting question why Japanese has words like these and English doesn’t. It can’t be purely historical, because these words only entered the Japanese language in the mid twentieth century. It’s also interesting to note that these are terms that refer to ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’, even in their dictionary definitions.

    I’d also like to find a way of tracing the Japanese understanding of the English word ‘bitch’, which seems to carry a connotation more similar to the English use of ‘slut’, although the nuance appears to differ.

  • Adiabat

    Hiding: “I need something like that, but with the added implication of an outlaw; the sort of person who might be in a street gang and go around beating people up.”

    ‘Psycho-bitch’ is quite commonly used. Though you lose the sexual element with that one.

    Ginkgo: Out of curiosity, are you aware of any term in linguistics which refers to the ‘connotation-stealing’ I mentioned earlier?

  • Ginkgo

    “I do think it’s an interesting question why Japanese has words like these and English doesn’t”

    I odn’t know about Japanese culture, but I know that Chinese culture does not attribute half the innocence and blamelessness to women and girls that Anglo culture does. If anyhting girls and women are thought to be especially toxic and vindictive and when women egt violent the reaction tends to be more “I told you; here it finlly comes.” than “OMG!!!” and no end of aatmepts to explaion away and justifiy the violence.

    And some pretty violent women are still thought highly of in China. Ci XI, the Dowager Empress, had her DIL stuffed down a well finally when she was seducing the young emperor towards modernist thinking. Look at the whole Jiang Qing affair. She came as no surprise to anyone.

  • Ginkgo

    “Ginkgo: Out of curiosity, are you aware of any term in linguistics which refers to the ‘connotation-stealing’ I mentioned earlier?”

    No and I doubt there is one. Historical linguistics deals with developments in langauge that ahppen without conscious direction – sound shifts, semantic shifts, developments in syntax – and what you are talking about is some groups of people doing this deliberately.

    BUt this is a real thing and just because I haven’t heard of it, that doesn’t mean that no one else has noticed it and developed a term for for it.

  • Jupp

    Ginkgo:

    Now and then in the course of a discussion somewhere someone will claim “X means Y because X…” and then either quote the first or original usage of X, or else break X down into its constituent elements and then insist that the sum of these parts is what “X really means.”

    I call this second type of fallacy the etymological fallacy.

    You seem to glide over a serious problem that the people, who say “what X really means”, point to. Words not only have a meaning, but they also invoke certain associations. The assoiciations might not be important if the meaning of the word is something that everybody understands, but they become more important the more difficult the concept behind the word in question is. It is hard to imagine how one could tech higher physics or mathematics without guiding the students gradually to an understanding of the concept by deliberately invoking certain associations in them.
    So I believe that criticism of terms like “patriarchy”, which claim that patriarchy means the rule of fathers, might be poorly formulated, but they have a valid and important core; many people associate patriarchy with father.

  • Adiabat

    Ginkgo: Tbh I don’t think it is all that deliberate sometimes. I think various subjects at university, the ones that derive a lot of content from Derrida, Foucault etc, teach this sort of thing as standard; as though it’s acceptable in rational argument. They students don’t realise just how deceitful they are being when they copy the styles of those they’ve studied.