Know Your Words

Is the Original Meaning of a Word the Right One?

Thoreau was passionate about the roots of words — he owned 17 dictionaries** — and he believed that good writing not only used words in their historic meaning, but brought the reader to the deeper wisdom that the words themselves contained. A smart pun was not just a pun, but a pun that directed the reader to a truth…. Whereas the average punster might pun for the pun’s sake, Thoreau looked for the pun that would … “drive to the radical meaning of things.”

– Robert Sullivan, The Thoreau You Don’t Know


writing blank from 1768
Writing blank of 1768 titled The origin of the days of the week as derived from the planets once worshiped on those days.

So there I was, flipping through the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, when I came across an entry for etymological fallacy, “The belief that an earlier or the earliest meaning of a word is necessarily the right one.”*

Admittedly, until that moment I was unaware of the concept, and at first glance, it didn’t seem right. I mean, I knew the meaning of words changed over time, but in my experience it always seemed worthwhile to discover a word’s origin when learning how to use it.

Curious to know more, I dug into my etymological dictionaries to see if they had anything more to say about the subject. Not that I expected them to contain an entry for etymological fallacy mind you, but I wondered if that phrase or any mention of its potential repercussions appeared in the front matter of any of the word-history books in my library.

To my surprise, neither the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories nor the Dictionary of Word Origins had anything to say about the idea. In fact, they (oddly) didn’t have much to say about deciphering word origins at all.

I did, however, come across the following in the book Websterisms, in a section titled “Etymology Run Amok.”

[Noah] Webster loved to speculate on the meaning of the primitive roots of modern words. Sometimes he admits to being flummoxed about a word’s origin, but as a rule he does not shrink from a guess, even when the evidence to support it is meager. His etymologies are often are often plausible, and usually they are correct, but scholars in his own time … let alone those in our own, could not take very seriously his forays into the history of English.

Guess? Meager evidence? Scholars not taking some of his work seriously? These aren’t the kinds of words and phrases a dictionary aficionado likes to see applied to the man known as the “Founding Father of American English.” How could this be?

Thankfully [and In true reference book fashion], Webster’s New Explorer Dictionary of Word Origins (WNED) provides a few answers as to why the etymologies of many words aren’t as clear—or static—as some (particularly those guilty of etymological fallacy) would like them to be.

Many of the histories in this book also reflect the fact that the meanings of English words never seem to be at rest, because we who speak and write the language simply won’t let them rest. We keep applying old words to new things and new situations, and we have done so as long as there has been an English language. Sometimes a simple extension of meaning takes place, but sometimes the development of meaning takes so long and involves so many steps that the original meaning drops away and the word is almost stood on its head.

Beyond the notion of extension and the lengthy development of meaning, the WNED notes that English speakers may slowly change the meanings of words by repeatedly using them “disparagingly or sarcastically.” For example:

Puny first meant no more than “younger” when it passed from French into English and its spelling was transformed. Only later did it acquire the derogatory meaning more familiar to us now.

Further, the editors of the WNED readily admit that, despite having a name that ends in “-ology,” etymology is “not an exact science” and, sometimes, etymologists simply cannot discover the origin of a word. “Unproved but often ingenious etymological theories are put forward frequently, some plausible and very attractive, some wildly improbable.”

In the end, though, the editors of the WNED explain away all etymological shortcomings, their own included, by dusting off a time-honored excuse of those who dare to claim to be an authority on a particular subject: the human propensity for error*.

Recall always that we, like all other etymologists and most other human beings are imperfect…. Time and time again, etymologists have felt that they had reached the final answer, only to find themselves faced with new evidence and so forced to revise their explanations.

So what does all this mean for those who insist that the first or early meanings of a word are correct? Only this: Words change, nobody’s perfect, and to believe otherwise is crazy. Or, as the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology puts it, “That [the etymological fallacy] is fallacious is illustrated by the fact that orchard once meant a treeless garden, treacle a wild beast, and villain a farm laborer.”



* It’s fitting that I’m positing this on a Thursday, as this is something of a throwback. An earlier version of this post originally appeared in 2015 (or maybe it was 2016) on an earlier blog of mine titled Reference Enthusiast. #TBT

** Big deal, I have 120.

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