Archive for the ‘Etymological Fallacy’ Category

Line 1, doctor, that crazy coconut again

November 17, 2021

And the doctor said to her — everybody join in! — “Put the lime in the coconut and drink it all up”.

Yesterday’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro Desert Island cartoon, with Wayno’s title “Coco Loco”:

(#1) The terrible toll of isolation (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 6 in this strip — see this Page.)

The extraordinarily versatile coconut — the fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) — pressed into service as a telephone receiver for a desperate and deranged castaway.


lookit, looky

March 15, 2021

My morning names a few days ago: surprising places the verb look has gone.

To come: the story of these items, from the OED. The related stories of some uses of say and like. All having moved from relatively concrete to much more abstract uses, serving discourse functions of various kinds.


The family of Word Inclusion snowclones

December 27, 2018

Keep X In AXB, Put X (Back) In(to) AXB, Take X Out of AXB

(where X is a word included in a larger word AXB — included in pronunciation (exactly or approximately) or spelling or both)

I’ll start with one of the most complicated examples, the seasonally apropos slogan with KEEP:

(#1) An outdoor vinyl banner from

then go on to a seasonal example with TAKE, and end with the great mass of examples, with PUT.


The agony of homophobia

November 15, 2016

A Harry Bliss cartoon from the November 14th New Yorker:


Four things, related in complex ways. One, the (very common) deflection of physical symptoms to psychological states (“You have knots in your lower back” > “You have lots of anxiety in your lower back”), here carried to an absurd degree of specificity, with knots or musculuar tension being attributed to homophobia.

Two, the physical intimacy of massage, here between two men.

Three, the formal composition of the drawing, with the masseur at right angles to his client and all those vertcal lines, broken by the angled branch on the scroll, which connects the bodies of the two men.

Four, the word homophobia, to which some have objected, on the grounds that it’s contrary to etymology: –phobia from the Greek ‘fear’ root, but homophobes, it is claimed, are not so much fearful of homosexuality as averse to it.


Five vegetarian meals

October 31, 2016

At Whole Foods today, looking for interesting frozen meals, we came across whole cases full of items designed to appeal to vegetarians (or vegans). Of special interest to me, since I’m preparing some postings on the etymological fallacy, originally inspired by complaints about the expression meatless meatballs, that it was contradictory (how could balls of meat be meatless?) and therefore unacceptable. Some on-the-spot photos by Kim Darnell, starting with this example:



Annals of idiomaticity

May 2, 2015

In putting together material on one and only earlier today, I stumbled on another well-known target of peevers, one of the only. One and only is accused of being evilly pleonastic, one of the only of being “illogical”, indeed incomprehensible; its purported offense involves an instance of the Etymological Fallacy — only historically derives from one, so it cannot be used in reference to groups (as in one of the only people to object) — compounded by a willful refusal to recognize idiomaticity (while idioms, not being fully compositional semantically, are, essentially by definition, not fully “logical”).



October 19, 2014

As the dreadful story of the Ebola virus in Africa unfolds, and with it the parallel story of the panicked response to Ebola in the U.S., the word quarantine is much in the news. The stories explain that the quarantine for Ebola is 21 days. But now look at NOAD2 on the word:

quarantine noun  a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed: many animals die in quarantine.

verb [with obj.] impose such isolation on (a person, animal, or place); put in quarantine.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Italian quarantina ‘forty days,’ from quaranta ‘forty.’

and note the origin, involving the Italian word for ‘forty’. We have here a straightforward case in which morphological material from the etymological source is still visible in the word, yet its current use no longer respects the semantics of the source. I’ll call such words decimators, after one famous English example that has led peevers to seethe in word rage at an offense to etymology.

If you take etymology dead seriously, then referring to a 21-day isolation period as a quarantine is just wrong.