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.
Woman – Yes 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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