Does folk etymology based on contemporary definitions of a word necessarily involve the etymological fallacy?

And does the etymological fallacy apply to speech and poetry, or just to argumentation?

  • 4
    Fallacies are not binary phenomena. And all etymologies are folk etymologies for some group of folk; it's a question of which folk one follows. Terms may need to be better defined before reasoning non fallaciously with them.
    – jlawler
    Jan 18 '20 at 0:27
  • -3 seems too strong as i have accepted [rightly so] a +3 answer Jan 19 '20 at 0:19
  • 2
    Well, in my opinion, the answer was good, but the question was bad (as in, based on false premises, and not easily understood in the first place). It's not like question and answer votes have to be tied together...
    – LjL
    Jan 20 '20 at 2:53

The etymological fallacy is the assumption that the origin of a word necessarily tells you about the current meaning of the word.

Folk etymology is quite independent of this: one may apply the etymological fallacy with a genuine linguistic etymology, or with a folk etymology; or one can observe real or folk etymologies for words without insisting that they give us the current meaning.

Edit to clarify my meaning:

The etymological fallacy is a (rather dubious) way of using etymology. The provenance and quality of the etymology used are irrelevant.

  • includinng folk etymologies based on current meaning? Jan 17 '20 at 22:49
  • I don't understand that question at all, @user3293056. Does the clarification I've put in my answer help?
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 18 '20 at 9:08
  • 3
    @user3293056 the etymological fallacy involves arguing that a word must be used with certain meanings and not certain others because its etymology only supports the former (and that's a fallacy because if word meanings were always just based on etymology, languages' vocabulary would never change); it does not mean giving a wrong etymology for a word, by for example basing it on current meaning and/or making up an etymology that gets repeated by others and gets accepted as "folk etymology". Those two things are quite unrelated. Sorry if you already knew that, but it didn't seem clear.
    – LjL
    Jan 18 '20 at 23:16
  • 3
    @user3293056: they are related in the same way that pseudoscience and technology are related. Technology is an application of science. In principle, the "science" it applies can be conventional science or pseudoscience (and indeed technologies based on pseudoscience, certainly exist: see, for example, the orgone energy accumulator).
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 19 '20 at 16:45
  • 2
    @user3293056 An etymological fallacy is a fallacy regardless of whether the etymology is well-founded because it is the willingness to attribute correctness to an earlier meaning that is already fallacious. Whether that meaning actually existed is irrelevant to the argument being a fallacy.
    – Nardog
    Jan 20 '20 at 15:34

The Etymological Fallacy concerns at first order the interpretation of preexisting words. Criticism submits that other interpretative theories need to be considered, because one cannot argue about prior meaning ad infinitum.

It's basically an observation about the reality of words, which derive meaning from usage--not the other way around. Etymology is primarily concerned with prior usage first, and interpretation of meaning second, necessarily so if describing the interpretation requires us to use words.

If word formation is based on interpretation of a preexisting word, naturally the fallacy can play a role.

The way an etymology may be falacious varies.

  1. Authorities can redefine words at will, for example:

    • The Außerordentliche Rechtsbehelf in German law is not outside of the judicial process at the latest since it was formally included in several procedural codes upon the order of the constitutional court; Nevertheless, this Rechtsbehelf (request for mitigation, judicial recourse upon a decision; viz Gehörsrüge) is not treated as a proper Rechtsbehelf, but still außerordentlich, simply because it was indicated in a legislating paper that this was the expected procedure--this is teleologic interpretation of statutes. The word außerordentlich has for a long time now simply meant extraordinary; the meaning eroded eitherway to the point that it seems to mean nothing more than special; a hollow phrase that cannot be explained from its Sum of Parts. The courts follow the given opinion, although it wasn't properly justified in writing.

    The legislative commentary was supposed to be descriptive (describing the status quo), though an anachronism (describing the status quo ante, as if nothing changed), and thus effectively prescriptive (foretold, so to speak) for the courts. The district courts then took the commentary as guidance, delivering proscriptive (forbidding) judgement. The high court has upheld these decisions, since, by the way. Reliance on surface analysis of the word, its Sum of Parts, is not be convincing without context either way; what counts is usage. Last but not least, it can't be denied that adjectives can negate semantics.

    PS: If you care, a native speaker would be liable to associate first of all the adjective ordentlich "tidy, in order", and take außer- as a mere intensifier. Indeed, it might compare to ut-most, given that the recourse in question is supposed to be the last resort or highest call. Now it becomes apparent that common usage and specific meaning agree better than would be expected from the usual sense of aus "out", außer "except". This shows the fallacy stemming eventually from a misunderstood etymology. Ultimately it doesn't make a difference.

  2. Arguments under the etymological fallacy are often invoked to justify proscriptivity, that a word or generally the things denoted by the word cannot change creating a paradox:

    • Legalese is often rather conservative and archaic, common vernacular not withstanding. This lead to several auto-antonyms, often due to ambiguous context. Wikipedia lists e.g. "conclude" (to start or finish a contract); "Limit damage to the clock-tower" (damage limited to the tower, or action limiting the damage); "Oversight" (position of control, responsibility for said position in case of failure). I'd add Ger verabschieden (to say good bye, said of laws that have been accepted in parliament, to be sent to the council).

    • Many a folk is rather ardent--to the point of being distressed--about "to make due", which they deem a spelling mistake of "to make do", despite "do" being extremely unlikely to be miss-spelled. The problem seems to be then that "do" implies a sense of active agency or freewilly, whereas "due" implies a sense of passive urgency and obligation; also one is an adjective or adverb that can regularly follow a verb, whereas the other one is a vulgar contraction of two verbs following ellipsis of the object (Bob's makin' the grill do, make [it] do, try make the car run, ?make run) to the apparance of the predicate as nominal verb, ?make [a] do, though never gerundive, ?make doing, rather present participle making do. This is called descriptive, wilifying 5 to 10% of instances that disagree with the descriptors. In that sense it is prescriptive, which might as well mean pre-ceding scripture, what was said before, or priority. The etymological fallacy in this case is of course the reliance on written evidence for oral speech. "make do" appears first in the 19th century in written records like modern housewife, much more frequently so than make due, and possibly corrected by copy editors to achieve that rate, to whom it seems inconceivable that a construction like make due recourse, attested as early as the 16th century in the Brittish parliament, could have been similarly elided.

Therein lies another Etymological Fallacy, insofar diachronic prescedent is meaningless, as long as construction is synchronically sensible, which it must be if it has been used, after all. If it can be hardly decided whether the two variants had developed largely independently, merely influencing each other in a course of convergent evolution, or rather came about as one corruption of the other in a not un- broken trajectory of descent, then common usage patterns can still be observed. Some people merely don't pay dues, other's don't give a duce--same difference. The usage of make due and make do is synonymous, and both describe a concern for constraints on livelyhood. This is enough to lump them up as one and the same without doubt. Likewise, "it was my oversight" subsumes both meanings.

Folketymology aptly describes the interpretation of folk stories, or mythological material in general. It should not be confused for faux etymology--that would be reanalisys. As such, the best examples of folk etymology are theonyms. Other examples like the naturalization of mundane loans or wanderwords counts as well, in principle, if these reanalysis becomes part of the oral tradition, even if it influences only the spelling and were otherwise inconsequential, as for plantnames--the consequences for etymologists notwithstanding, e.g. trying to connect Ger Wermut[-s-tropfen] to Rose[-n-Öl]. The consequences in theologic onomastics can be sever, e.g. if tribal history can be occluded by a change in name--or ellucidated by such a breaking change.

That said, to answer your question

does the etymological fallacy apply to speech and poetry, or just to argumentation?

It necessarily applies to all of these, when arguing about them.

Does folk etymology based on contemporary definitions of a word necessarily involve the etymological fallacy?

This is a contradiction in terms, if a folk etymology for a concept is in principle based on anything but the word originally associated with the concept, whereas a contemporary definition of a word is, for sake of the argument, the original association of the symbol and concept that make up a word.

That's a recursive definition, insofar words are often polysemous--most of them I dare say--so that a the concept demarcated by a symbol can be a symbol itself associated with a wider, or narrower concept, the added constraints being implicit, or contextual. So a folk etymology based on the Etymological fallacy is possible, but that's not one and the same instance.

Etymologic lessons should not be the premisses of an argument, but the conclusion. It can be fallacious like any other argument. And like any other argument, one conclusion may be the premisses of another argument. A common meme in Linguistics is the arbitrariness of the sign.

So it's an oversight if a concept that was the ultimate premisses, so to speak, is being confused; e.g. over in oversight understood as missing the target, over one's head, instead of from above, towards, over others' heads.

The difficulty in this hierarchical view is saying what the initial, conceltual premises is, and at which point in the argument it became corrupted; usually by showing contradiction. This is however immaterial when working in a temporal logic, in which symbols have limited lifetime, or single-use instances derived from constructors for example, if scoping is allowed, or if various senses are don't-care. ...

  • 5
    This answer is unclear in many ways: there are many words which make no sense in the context, where it is unclear what the writer means, and there are many statements where the writer's point is unclear. Much of it concerns German usage, which will I expect be unfamiliar to most readers of this site, and much of it concerns a phrase "to make due", which is not a common English idiom. A better-known English idiom might make a more convincing argument.
    – Rosie F
    Jan 20 '20 at 9:21
  • The parts are evenly divided between intro, conclusion and the two examples. The fact that the first example will be unknown to most readers, including German speakers, should make it interesting; arguably law is an area with a focus on meaning. That "make due" were not an English idiom is simply not true; you are just one of those "distressed". The text is stylistically terrible in important points, perhaps because it's not really sure what it wants to say. That's also why it's quite long.
    – vectory
    Jan 20 '20 at 11:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.