Etymological fallacy:

Linguistic Fallacy
Definition Example
When it is argued that the original or historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day meaning. Because “gay” meant “happy” in the past, you can’t call homosexuals “gay” unless they are happy.
  Notes
Language inevitably changes. To be understood, a participant in the activity of communication in any language will need to employ the language in the way it is currently conventionally used. Words are merely tools to convey concepts. When certain terms fail due to the speaker deviating from their conventional usage, the speaker, instead of demanding the denotation associated with the origin of the term, ought to either choose other terms that more clearly reflect their ideas to their intended audience, or stipulate a provisional definition of the term. Words themselves contain no meaning other than what the language community has granted them.


The etymological fallacy is a type of genetic fallacy.

Case Study One

In recent years, there has been much wrangling over what the meaning of “theist”, “deist”, “atheist” and “agnostic” actually mean. The answer is, when terms become as hotly debated as these are, they have lost their meaning. It is difficult for concepts as nuanced as these are, to find a single term that accurately captures its full meaning. Concepts are logically prior to their linguistic tags. Instead of demanding others accept your own understanding or the historical meaning of a particular term, give a longer more nuanced explanation of your theistic position. The convenience of a shorter term does not count for much if meaning is sacrificed.


Case Study Two

Some have argued that the “n” word originally came from the Latin “niger”, meaning “black”, and therefore is not an offensive term. This completely ignores the conventional meaning it has today, and it is within convention that meaning is created. On the other side of this issue you have people attempting to remove the “n” word from Mark Twain books, perhaps not understanding that the term was not used disparagingly by all in that era. Negatively connoted terms can be salvaged by a linguistic community as was the term “queer” through the efforts of the gay community.


Keep in mind that a fallacious argument does not entail an erroneous position.


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