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In discussions about the meanings of words I often find participants bring up the etymologies as though they are conclusive deciding factors.

On the other hand there is concept of the "etymological fallacy" as discussed in Wikipedia.

Which is true? Or is the truth somewhere between? If words change over history how relevant is their origin to their current meaning? If the etymology of a word is a trump card which can settle debates about correct usage of words does this mean words cannot in fact change over time?

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I'm not really sure how this question is specific to English. You might wish to support the Linguistics proposal. –  RegDwigнt May 6 '11 at 11:38
    
See also this question on the meta site: meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/1106/… –  hippietrail Jun 14 '11 at 5:12
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6 Answers

The etymological fallacy does not state that knowing the etymology of a word will lead you to misunderstand its present meaning, it merely states that the original meaning is not necessarily systematically equated to the present meaning which, on the face of it, seems a fair statement.

The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds, erroneously, that the historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day meaning.

That is however a reductive use of the word etymology itself.

Etymology cannot be reduced to the original meaning of a word (if there ever was such a thing - words themselves having a life of their own). Instead it has to be envisioned as the whole path that leads from former meanings to present day meanings. It is not a static snapshot taken at an arbitrary point in the past, it is, as much as one can reconstruct it, the whole history of how words and cultures interact with each other to lead from stems to words and meanings. It is a dynamic thing leading to the present.

Let's take just one example: to tally. If you look it up online in the the free dictionary, you will discover a whole list of apparently unrelated meanings such as:

  • To reckon or count.
  • To record by making a mark.
  • to score (a point or goal) in a game or contest.
  • To be alike; correspond or agree.

The way these seemingly unrelated meanings are actually connected becomes glaringly obvious if you know the etymology of the word:

The base meaning of a tally is "a tick marked with notches to indicate amount owed or paid" (see French une entaille).

In the old times, people would keep counts of what they owed to each other by dividing a stick in two pieces and each time a new debt was contracted a new notch (a tally) was carved into the reunited pieces. Each party would keep its own piece and every now and then, accounts were settled with the two pieces matching. Because two different sticks can't be broken in the same way, there was no possible argument.

This is the kind of gem etymology brings to the knowledge of a given language.

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Emphatically not. Etymology will sometimes help you know what a word means and how to use it, but is never reliable for this purpose.

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Since language is not something fixed and, instead, it evolves through usage, sometimes the modern word you know might be different (in usage/meaning/etc.) from the original form.

The etymology of a word will usually give you an idea of its original meaning and where it comes from.

But remember this: Etymology isn't just related to the "original form" of some word, but it studies its evolution too, so that's why it's mostly reliable. Of course, this is unless there is some case of "unclear etymology" or the word has some obscure history.

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NO. The etymology of a word will usually give you an idea of a meaning the word once had. That is no more its true meaning that any other meaning it may have had in its history. –  Colin Fine May 6 '11 at 12:16
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That's kind of what I said, where do what we both said is in contrast? With "true meaning" I meant "original meaning", should I change my expression? Maybe it's unclear (as you just proved me lol). –  Alenanno May 6 '11 at 12:18
    
I edited the answer, now it's less ambiguous. –  Alenanno May 6 '11 at 12:19
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My big problem is with "true meaning". You might know you mean "original meaning", but a lot of people will take that to mean "this is the meaning of the word and anything else is wrong". –  Colin Fine May 6 '11 at 14:54
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Yes. From the etymology one can determine the current meaning or usage of a word. That's because the etymology is not just the origin of a word, but its whole historical development until present usage.

If etymology meant just the origin of a word, then the answer would be "no, etymology does not determine the current usage or meaning". But that's not the case.

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That is a possible meaning for "etymology", but it is not how it often gets used. Very often arguments about the meaning of words focus on their form and deduces a meaning from that, and implicitly assumes that the meaning cannot change. –  Colin Fine May 6 '11 at 12:19
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To add a nuance, an etymology can help understand the current meaning (semantics) of a word but it is in no way the primary means (especially since if the history is non-trivial then it will have non-trivial changes in meaning). An etymology is useful for more latinate neologisms where the parts of the word are easily extractable and were intended by the neologizer.

More common methods for determining the semantics of words would be to see examples in context, lists of conceptually similar words, or simple exchange of alternates in context.

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This is another of those 'Yes and No' questions.

Google itself gives two definitions of the word etymology, though to be honest, I don't see much difference between them.

The important thing is both definitions encompass 'subsequent development' as well as 'origin'. So if you want to go by the book, the etymology of a word inherently includes it's current meaning. It's just that we're used to seeing etymologies in dictionaries, immediately after the definition(s). So we tend to think it just means the historical stuff.

The reason it's a bit of a hot potato is simply that there will always be some people arguing in favour of the historical meaning of a word, while the rest of us have moved on to accepting some new sense.

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