In a Word: Bad Etymological Arguments

The misuse of etymology can be funny or frustrating.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

I’ve mentioned the etymological fallacy in this column before, but I always seem to come back to it. By exploring instances of the etymological fallacy, we not only reveal the wide-ranging and often unexpected evolutions of words and ideas, but we discover how etymological data — like any data — can be misused to give an academic sheen to a bad argument.

The etymological fallacy is an argument based on the idea that a word’s current meaning can be gleaned solely from its etymological parts, or that a word’s “correct” or “pure” meaning is its earliest one and no other.

As I said, I’ve touched on some of these either misguided or disingenuous arguments in the past, such as the argument that decimate can only mean “reduced by 10 percent,” or that only a stone structure can be dilapidated. I’ve also illustrated some of the ridiculous places the etymological fallacy takes us by showing how, for example, the ninth month of the year is called September, a word that means (etymologically) “seventh month”; or how manure, the name for something you don’t want to get on your hands, began its life in English meaning “to work with one’s hands.”

The etymological fallacy is fallacious because it disregards social, cultural, and political shifts that affect language over time. Language changes, and no argument can ever disprove that.

Nonetheless, someone will occasionally still throw out an argument like one of the following in an attempt to silence opposition to their own stance. (We’ll assume their arguments ill-advised and not intentionally misleading.)

To reiterate: These are bad, illogical arguments. Still, they can be fun to think about, and some of them might surprise you.

If you call someone nice, you’re calling them stupid. The word nice traces back to the Latin nescius “ignorant” — from ne- “not” and the stem of scire “to know” — and when the word started appearing in English texts in the late 13th century, it meant “foolish, senseless.” Since then it has undergone a series of definitional shifts that is practically unparalleled. Its meaning shifted from “foolish” to “timid” to “fussy” to “delicate” to “precise” to “agreeable” and finally (?) to “kind” — and it doesn’t take a lot of brainpower to make the connections from end to end.

It isn’t a holiday if it isn’t religious. (Or, conversely, if you call it a holiday, you’re bringing religion into it.) Yes, the word holiday is a descendant of the Old English haligdæg, literally “holy day.” But these religious holy days were not only times of prayer and worship, but times during which one was exempt from labor. Originally some time off of work or school for religious reasons, a holiday has long since been a day off work or school for any special reason.

Only teachers should rightfully be called doctor. This statement comes up to counter the argument that only physicians should be allowed the honorific, and though both sides of the debate are equally pointless, there is some notable history here. From the Medieval Latin doctor (via Old French) “scholar, religious teacher,” the English doctor in the 1300s was a title given to Roman Catholic theologians, who were recognized by the Church as authorities on Church doctrine — though you never hear claims today that only Catholic theologians should be called doctors. But by the end of that century, doctor was bestowed upon anyone who had completed the highest degree available to a university, and it signified that a person was capable of teaching the subject which they studied.

As knowledge expanded, the amount of study required to achieve “the highest degree” grew and grew. Many disciplines no longer required that level of study to either teach or practice. But what discipline did and does require the whole kit and caboodle in order to practice? You guessed it: Medicine.

It’s a proper freshman orientation only if you do it facing east. Yes, orient, from the Latin word meaning “east,” originally meant, as a noun, “east” (i.e., “the Orient”), and as a verb, “to arrange so as to face east,” but even before the verb found its way into English, its French predecessor s’orienter meant “to take one’s bearings” more generally. Presumably, the person making this argument believes someone facing west is at freshman occidentation; north, at borealization; and south, at australization.

It’s a movie trailer only if it follows the movie; otherwise it’s a preview. “Look,” the argument goes, “it’s right there in the name! To trail means to follow after, and the original movie trailers did come after the movie.” Yes, all that is true, but as Troy Brownfield explains, playing teaser cuts from upcoming movies after the feature film didn’t last long — because people left during the credits! So they started playing them before movies, but the name trailer stuck for these extended commercials that use actual clips from the advertised movie, regardless of whether they’re shown before or after a movie or, more likely today, in a YouTube video.

There is an argument to be had here, though: A movie trailer is still a commercial. But when you watch one on YouTube, you’re usually forced to watch an ad or two before the trailer. That means you need to watch a couple of commercials before you get to watch the commercial you want to watch. It’s commercials from start to finish!

What funny or outrageous etymological arguments have you heard? Leave them in the comments below.

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