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The etymological fallacy is a "genetic fallacy that holds that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to "its historical meaning. This is a "linguistic misconception,[1] 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.[2] This does not, however, show that etymology is irrelevant in any way, nor does it attempt to prove such.

A variant of the etymological fallacy involves looking for the true meaning of words by delving into their etymologies,[3] or claiming that a word should be used in a particular way because it has a particular etymology. A notable example is the word "decimation, which used to refer to reduction by a tenth, but in modern "English means reduction by an extreme amount.




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.[2]

For example:


Not every change in meaning provokes an etymological fallacy, but such changes are frequently the basis of inaccurate arguments.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kenneth G. Wilson (1993) "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English", article "Etymological Fallacy"
  2. ^ a b c "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 "90-272-3698-4. 
  3. ^ Hutton, Christopher (1998). Linguistics and Third Reich. Routledge studies in the history of linguistics. 1. Routledge. p. 1. "ISBN "978-0-203-02101-9. 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). 
  4. ^ Kirkpatrick; et al. (1989). The Cassell Concise English Dictionary. London. pp. 760–1, 802. "ISBN "0-304-31806-X. 
  5. ^ "Chase, Stuart (1938). The Tyranny of Words. p. 226. "ISBN "0-15-692394-7. 
  6. ^ "The Etymological Fallacy". Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  7. ^ Henry, Sweet (2009-05-30). The Practical Study of Languages; a Guide for Teachers and Learners. BiblioBazaar, LLC. p. 88. "ISBN "978-1-110-37033-7. Retrieved 12 December 2010. 

Further reading[edit]

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