An etymological fallacy is an argument of equivocation, arguing that a word is defined by its etymology, and that its customary usage is therefore incorrect.[1][2]


Ancient Greeks believed that there was a "true meaning" of a word, distinct from common use. There is evidence that a similar belief existed among ancient Vedic scholars. In modern days, this fallacy can be found in some arguments of language purists.[1]

Occurrence and examples

An etymological fallacy becomes possible when a word's meaning shifts over time from its original meaning. Such changes can include a narrowing or widening of scope or a change of connotation (amelioration or pejoration). In some cases, modern usage can shift to the point where the new meaning has no evident connection to its etymon.[examples needed][1]


The term antisemitism, as coined by the Göttingen School of History in the 18th[citation needed] century, refers to anti-Jewish beliefs and practices.[3][4][5] The etymological fallacy arises when a speaker asserts its meaning is the one implied by the structure of the word—racism against the Semitic people.[6][7]

Some sources such as the Encyclopædia Britannica still consider it a misnomer.[clarification needed][8]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Sihler, Andrew (2000). Language History. Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science. Series IV, Current issues in linguistic theory. Vol. 191. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 131–133. ISBN 90-272-3698-4.
  2. ^ Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). "Etymological Fallacy". The Columbia Guide to Standard American English.
  3. ^ Lipstadt (2019), pp. 22–25.
  4. ^ Johnson, Paul (1987). A History of the Jews. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-06-091533-9.
  5. ^ Lewis, Bernard. "Semites and Anti-Semites". Archived from the original on 14 May 2011. Retrieved 27 October 2018.. Extract from Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle East, The Library Press, 1973.Lewis, Bernard (Winter 2006). "The New Anti-Semitism". The American Scholar. 75 (1): 25–36. Archived from the original on 8 November 2017.
  6. ^ Lipstadt, Deborah (2019). Antisemitism: Here and Now. Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-80524337-6.
  7. ^ "Encyclopedia Britannica: Semitic people can't be called antisemitic". The Jerusalem Post | 2022-02-04. Retrieved 2023-11-15.
  8. ^ "Origins and concept of anti-Semitism | Britannica". Retrieved 2023-11-29.

Further reading