I've been using the word 'intuition' to characterise such questions, of which I've asked many, so I'd like to learn or be enlightened about the general methodology. Is there a formal term?

Supplementary: Thanks to the answer below about etymological fallacy, I've emended this question. I don't expect 100% precision with this modality, but it can lessen the need to memorise definitions, review >3 times each new word, or post a new question for each word? I prefer to try 'intuiting' or glossing words for myself, also to improve my remembrance.

If you weren't educated about this formally, then how did you acquire or develop this skill? Books? Online resources?

  • You don’t: it doesn’t work that way.
    – tchrist
    Jul 6, 2014 at 18:16
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    However, there are books you can read about it. I recommend Lewis Thomas's Etc, Etc: Notes of a Word Watcher, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, and Buck's Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Prinicpal Indo-European Languages. You can get a feeling for what kinds of change are common, and how the big ideas get transmitted and transmuted culturally through language. Jul 6, 2014 at 18:27

1 Answer 1


Consulting etymologies may help you recognize and remember meanings; but you must not regard etymologies as constitutive of meaning. That is the etymological fallacy:

The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds, erroneously, that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. This is a linguistic misconception, and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology. This does not, however, show that etymology is irrelevant in any way, nor does it attempt to prove such.

A variant of the etymological fallacy involves looking for the "true" meaning of words by delving into their etymologies, or claiming that a word should be used in a particular way because it has a particular etymology.

The meanings of words extend and change over time, often in quite surprising ways. Etymology is of no value whatever in predicting meaning in any given instance, any more than, say, your own opinions can be deduced by investigating your father’s opinions.

  • Indeed. Knowing that silly comes to us from the Old English for "blessed" (and is a congnate of the German word selig) doesn't help a lot.
    – bye
    Jul 6, 2014 at 19:08
  • More important is to refer to a corpus of the older versions of the language (Middle English/Old English, for example), to see how actual people used the language. Jul 6, 2014 at 21:11
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    @MattGuttting Well, how actual writers used the language, wihch is not quite the same thing. (I'm allowed to say that). Jul 6, 2014 at 22:06
  • @MattGutting - I again raise silly as an objection here. In OE and early ME, it was used to mean "blessed" (often in missals and breviaries). By late ME it meant something like "innocent" or "lowly", depending on context. Shakespeare used it to mean "defenceless" (Two Gentlemen of Verona IV.i.73–75). While it might be handy to know the then-current meaning and usage when reading old texts (and who among us doesn't enjoy fun facts in general), silly carries none of those meanings, even as the barest hint of connotation or implication, into its current meaning and usage.
    – bye
    Jul 7, 2014 at 4:14
  • I was more thinking of "how was it used in 1300? 1400? 1600? 1700? ..." But ultimately you're correct; there's no telling when a word finally made a change to its modern meaning. Jul 7, 2014 at 10:22