This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/blog/2014/12/quest-post-the-lord-the-bishop-and-the-harlot-an-etymological-fallacy/
“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”
There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”
Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.
Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”
But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:
Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.
Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.
“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”
“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”
As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”
The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.
At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.
Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:
Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.
Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.
“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”
“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”
As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”
The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.
At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.
Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.