Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Etymological Fallacy - By Golly!

When I was a young bloke, still in short trousers and serving time, age 11, at Peachgrove Intermediate School, I had a friend who was much given to using the word 'flip' as an exclamation. "I just heard Miss Levesque will be having a test on the algebra chapter after lunch." Response, "Oh flip!"

The term I preferred was the time honored "gosh!" (I much later incorporated it into the name of this blog on a bit of a whim, fusing it with the name of a certain fine - if chilly - institution of higher learning.)

Later I was informed that terms like these were euphemisms. Their original purpose was to wickedly circumvent evil and damnable outbursts. Gosh was just a sly way of saying God, thus taking the Lord's name in vain, whether or not you realized it or intended it, hence a serious sin, and I was on very thin ice indeed.

As for 'flip', well, I'll leave that to your imagination. But the list goes on; 'shoot' anyone?

This nonsense was reinforced in the fundamentalist cult that I was drawn into in my late teens. Religious fundamentalism and language fundamentalism are not unrelated. This was a sect where ministers actually thought they could prove a theological point by citing a Webster's definition.

This sort of logic is based on a fallacy, and happily linguists even have a name for it: the etymological fallacy. The idea is that words mean what they originally meant, world without end, amen.

Which is clearly wrong.

Word origins are intriguing. I'm a devoted follower of the UK Channel 4 show Countdown which features a segment on origins of words with lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent. You'd have to be the classic "moron in a hurry" to maintain the etymological fallacy after a even a couple of those episodes.

Meanings change and evolve. English - like all other modern tongues - is a living language. As difficult as it is for language fundamentalists to accept, usage determines meaning. I mean, where do these guys think the definitions in Webster's (or Strong's Exhaustive Concordance for that matter) came from in the first place? Clue: they didn't drop down from the sky on stone tablets. A word means what those of us in the land of the living believe it means. Consider words like gay and bimbo. The latter originally meant "a young child". In the Jim Reeves song it referred to a young boy!
"Bimbo is a little boy who's got a million friends,
And every time he passes by, they all invite him in.
He'll clap his hands and sing and dance, and talk his baby talk,
With a hole in his pants and his knees a-stickin' out,
he's just big enough to walk."
That's not how it's used in these Kardashian times.

If Granny thought differently, that's okay, then was then, now is now. It's also the reason that nobody today uses the first edition of the Concise Oxford, published in 1911, except as a bookshelf curiosity.

There is a great example of shifting meaning with the word (ladies be warned, a wicked word follows) bugger. The aforementioned 1911 Concise Oxford had no doubts, racing straight to a then illegal sexual practice. Move ahead into a new century and the first definition in The New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (2005) reads "an unpleasant or awkward person or thing (the bugger won't fit)."

But if you were pedantic, insisting on the original meaning come hell or high water, neither would be accurate. The term simply meant heretic, with special reference to non-Catholic Bulgarians.



  1. When it comes to religion, particularly the fundamentalist or the stogy musty Protestants of centuries standing with aging congregations, etymological fallacy gives them all a sense of security that the world is stable, while they studiously avoid the modern world.

    This allows the current geriatric congregants license to believe that they are living in the 1940s, 1950s or maybe the very early 1960s. They wear the clothes of the period, at least the ones whose closets haven't been invaded by the thread bear. The world is a quite serene place, moving at a snail's pace.

    They can live in comfortable delusion while the world passes them by.

    Unless they have to face reality at some point.

    A local independent Baptist congregation got down to 8 people and are now disbanding, trying to figure out what to do with the property they have from which they cannot benefit because of tax reasons. The property is valued at over $1 million these days and insured for $2 million. But they can only sell it to a non profit religious organization and can't really take the money themselves, so they are selling it for (currently) $40,000.

    I suspect there are very many congregations with properties facing the same fate around these parts. I drive past them and some of them have 'For Sale' signs.

    They look around and wonder 'What happened? Where did our life go?'

    And it never occurred to me that part of the problem might well be in their understanding of language.

  2. Most humans derive their sense of relevancy from the context in which they found themselves during their prime years, which in most cases was their youth and young adulthood. Language, technology, the arts, luminaries, and various social institutions all play a strong part in that. I used to wonder, back in the 1970s, why the Boogie Woogie at the USO set was still concerned with what Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra said and did, and now I find myself more in touch with what Mick Jagger or Hank Williams Jr. are doing than about the activities of Justin Bieber or Wiz Khalifa.

    I know some car people who will only work on engines in cars from the 1950s and '60s. I don't use the current slang, or run around in cargo pants, but am just as comfortable pulling the fuel injection, intake manifold, and heads from a transversely mounted late model Ford or Chevy engine to effect some repairs as I would the counterparts on an old, non-electronic, non computer controlled engine. And, there are some profound differences not the least of which would be stretch bolt technology. The old cars are cool, but the new ones are more reliable, handle better, and are more comfortable. An injected Chevy V-6 running through a modern automatic overdrive transmission is quicker and faster than an old Ford 292 V-8 running through an early Fordomatic transmission, and the V-6 gets more than double the gas mileage.

    I've known some people who are stuck almost exclusively on Elvis, or the Beatles, and who wear the same styles of clothing that were popular when they were in high school or college. They are totally unaware of new trends in slang, and believe that society is falling apart because of the advances made by certain groups, or because of evolving social trends. There is probably a little bit of the Amish in all of us. However, if we do wish to remain relevant, it would behoove us to keep up with the world around us.


  3. Ran into some people arguing over the definition of 'cynic': One party claimed victory by pulling up on a smartphone the strict definition of a person who eschews prosperity and affluence (which I didn't know). But I would say this web source had the definition(s) incorrectly ordered - an etymological fallacy? - as this is not at all the contemporary usage?