I've recently joined a discussion in which some of the participants insist that if one doesn't understand the nature of the difference between two or more words (the ones discussed by us are synonyms or near-synonyms, but it could be a more general problem) at a particular synchronic level, they can resort to etymology to figure it out.

I have expressed my doubts, because I don't believe etymology can do that. I believe etymology can be used to explain how such differences may have arisen, but if we actually want to grasp them at all, we need to study their synchronic properties in synchronic contexts.

Can somebody possibly provide me with some arguments (and/or examples) that could either confirm or refute my opinion?

So far, I've only been able to come up with the imperfect example of English 'arm' and Czech 'rameno': If we only knew the meaning of the Proto-Indo-European root they both come from, but didn't know their current meanings, we wouldn't be able to determine those meanings, would we? There would be no way of knowing that the latter actually means 'shoulder' in contemporary Czech, not 'arm' (and vice versa). Only after we have learnt their current meanings could we use etymology to explain how the differences may have come into being, am I right?

Many thanks for any ideas!


2 Answers 2


This version of the etymological fallacy is easily disproved with false friends that have the same etymological root. Your claim is correct.

For example, English embarassed and Spanish embarazado/a (which means pregnant in English). Charting the evolution of the derivative of Latin in- and some kind of Ibero-Romance word baraça (possibly from Celtic) is very interesting. But you are still taking data points from each occurrence of this combination across the centuries, and having to work out the meaning at each occurrence, not just at the "root".

That's not to say that it's useless of course, as you rightly point out. Etymology can strongly inform us of how things changed, and point to extra connections (cf. Spanish encinto and Italian incinto, pointing to a perceived connection between pregnancy and rope/noose).


One day I came across a discussion about what the Latin translation for 'village' will be. That question arose, apparently, due to the presence of at least three synonyms: pagus, villa, vicus. One of the participants suggested to look up the etymology to determine if such-and-such a word is appropriate. As for me, I would agree, and I do sometimes resort to this.

Every language displays a certain conceptual system, or a worldview, and its concepts consist of multiple sorts of information, part of which etymological information might be. I want to add, though, that folk etymology is even more likely to serve this purpose, although it surely depends on every particular usage and every particular culture. It should be borne in mind, then, that to grasp the differences between the words, you have to know that conceptual information. Etymology, again, may not be part of the worldview, but, on a pair with the synchronic contexts you mention, does often reflect it.

In the case of Latin, the etymology can be relevant, due to the fact that Latin was mostly a literary language, rather well-studied, whence the higher probability that those who would write texts in it knew some etymology and based some of their acceptability judgements on that.

Furthemore, if, based on etymology, you can imagine how those differences have arisen (i.e. you know the mechanisms of metaphor, metonymy, etc.), then you may predict what the actual differences are.

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    The trouble is that etymology gives you precisely zero reliable information about the meanings of words and phrases. Ex post facto, you can see how meanings came about ,but there is nothing whatever that you can argue forwards from.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 18:04
  • @ColinFine, what do you think is a source of reliable information then? Dictionary definitions are seldom sufficiently informative, collocations can help, but I do not see a reason why, for instance, these are more reliable than etymology. They all jointly would rather do. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 18:48
  • Also, if you know how the meanings can come about generally, you may rely on the fact, for example, that a given word is a metaphor, and want to consider to what extend you are likely to use this metaphor in the context, i.e. to what extend the source domain of the metaphor fits the context. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 19:03
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    the only reliable and comprehensive source of information about what words mean is the totality of instances where the words are used. Dictionaries attempt to capture and distill that information, but are not necssarily either comprehensive or up-to-date. I repeat, etymologies often illuminate meanings, but they are incapable of reliably telling you anything at all about meanings. And while it's true that extensions of meaning are metaphorical, the presence of a particular metaphorical meaning tells you precisely nothing about whether others exist.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 22:34

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