Illustrating the Etymological Fallacy

by Jun 14, 2013Linguistics

I love words, and I love languages. I’m always running across little interesting tidbits when it comes to words; often those tidbits have to do with etymology.

There is a logical fallacy that should immediately come to your mind when you hear that word “etymology.” It’s called the etymological fallacy, the root fallacy, or the genetic fallacy. It’s the idea that a word means what it used to mean (or what it originally meant when coined).

Sometimes that’s true. Eleemosynary, for example, comes so clearly from Greek (ἐλεημοσύνη) and entered the language at such a definite time (17th century, according to the OED), and has such a narrow and specific meaning, that that meaning has never changed. (Interestingly enough, alms also comes from the same Greek root).

But language changes. No mere human can stop it. And that’s okay! If words always meant what they used to mean, we would get in weird messes.

Take vanguard. It has a common literal sense and a common figurative one (AHD):

  • Literal sense: The foremost position in an army or fleet advancing into battle.
  • Figurative sense: The foremost or leading position in a trend or movement.

The etymology of vanguard is clear: it comes from the French avant garde, meaning “before the guard.” Vanguard in its literal sense entered our language in the mid-to-late 1400s.

Its etymological source, avant garde, should sound familiar to you, however, because avant garde  is such a common French phrase that it has essentially entered the English vernacular—again! Only this time it didn’t get Anglicized (Englished). It stayed in its original form. Avant garde, which began to be used in English in the early 20th century, means “the pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period” (OED). Avant garde music is challenging, bleeding edge, high-culture stuff—think Dadaism (at one time) and these people (at their times). Avant garde clearly still means something very like the other English word that has come from the same French root, but the two are not interchangeable. Avant garde music may be in the vanguard, but you can’t talk about “Vanguard music.” Or at least no accredited speakers of the language do that.

So we have two different words that have entered English at vastly different times but from the same French root. And they don’t mean the same thing. And that’s okay.

And interesting. Or at least I think so.*

*One more tidbit: “van” as in minivan and conversion van comes from the word “caravan,” ultimately a Persian word. But “van” can be short for “vanguard” too: “in the van” may mean ready for soccer practice or on the leading edge of a cultural trend. “Van” and “van” have different etymologies. God’s work at Babel was masterful!

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