The etymological fallacy and related crimes

One of the argument techniques that I found most frustrating is the etymological fallacy, the idea that the meaning of a word or a symbol is determined completely by its origin, with no regard to its current usage or the particular context of the conversation. It is related to another common fallacy, which is to give a word a non-standard definition and then not sticking to that definition.

Like most fallacies, it is employed by people on all sides of an issue (and I welcome any further examples that you can think of). Etymological fallacies are often committed by self-identifying ‘rational’ people, who otherwise delight in picking flaws in other people’s reasoning. These people tend to see the world in black-and-white terms, and perhaps think that their arguments are impervious to criticism because they take an axiomatic approach. Such an attitude is nothing more than a cousin of Biblical literalism.

(Aside: Think of Professor Dawkins. Even their use of the self-label ‘rational’ is an example of the fallacy in action. I might rant some more about so-called ‘rationalists’ in the future. In the meantime, here is a caricature.)

The etymological fallacy does not only helps one invalidly arrive at a conclusion. What makes it particularly frustrating is that it can also shut down conversation completely. It is not possible to have conversations about complicated issues when the terminology are restricted to narrow definitions.

On the other hand, claiming that one uses words and symbols only according to their literal meanings is particularly insidious, because it is used to appeal to racists, without explicitly admitting that one is a racist. As such, it is a form of dog-whistling.

The etymological fallacy is seen in statements such as:

  • The theory of evolution is just a theory.
  • Feminists should admit to being sexist, because ‘feminism’ specifically promotes women.
  • We’re socialists; of course we want what’s best for society!
  • We’re pro-life; if you oppose us, you are anti-life.
  • The British monarch no longer holds the title ‘Empress’ over any land, so how can you say that British imperialism still exists?
  • They are the Israel Defense Forces; their acts are for defence, not offence.
  • Islamic violence doesn’t exist, because ‘Islam’ means ‘peace’ in Arabic.
  • It’s not antisemitic to call for the dissolution of the State of Israel, because antisemitism is about race, not nationality.
  • Islamophobia isn’t a form of racism, because Islam is a religion, not a race.

It can also include statements that try to point out the lack of a literal or etymological connection, dissociating the term from an implied meaning. Examples of that include:

  • We merely demand ‘states’ rights’; they aren’t specifically about slavery and segregation.
  • Men’s rights activists just want to protect the rights of men; there’s nothing misogynistic about that.
  • Pepe the Frog is just a cartoon character; it’s you who are seeing it as racist, not us.
  • What? I’m just wrapping certain names in triple parentheses. There’s nothing fundamentally racist about punctuation. You can’t prove that I’m only doing this to names of Jewish people!
  • The swastika has many meanings beyond its use by the Nazis. You can’t prove that I’m not using it in one of those contexts.

Examples of the dual fallacy, in which one uses non-standard definitions for terms, include:

  • Racism is prejudice plus power. White people are powerful, so how can they be the victim of racism?

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