Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Etymological Fallacy

A friend is going through the University of Phoenix undergrad program here in sunny (it was 84 today) Southern California. He is currently cherry picking elective classes prior to his graduation, but has had the misfortune of attending a comparative religion class taught by Firpo Carr. Of course, those of us who have already been down this path know that Carr will not teach comparative religion, he will instead fill the five class sessions with lectures on topics related to supporting the belief system of the Jehovah Witnesses Cult. My friend is in for a long series of lectures on the true name of god, the problem with the trinity, and biblical contradictions.

One of Carr’s techniques is to subdue his class by establishing how deep a understanding of etymology he possesses. He has read the dictionary cover to cover and has a ready repertoire of special words that are guaranteed to impress the uneducated or uninformed. He normally starts with a word like Gorilla. His intent is to establish with the students that the use of the word is racists because the dictionary refers to Gorilla as “a race of hairy African woman.” What Carr is doing is using an Etymological Fallacy, and he is damn good at it.

An Etymological Fallacy occurs whenever someone falsely assumes that the meaning of a word can be discovered from its etymology or origins. Gorilla may have started as a native term used in the 4th century to describe what we know today as gorillas (not as Carr asserts - hairy african women), but today it is used in common language to describe two things:

Zoology largest ape: the largest ape, native to central Africa, with a relatively short but very powerful body and coarse dark hair.

Thug: a large or brutal person, especially a hired thug

The word gorilla is not racist, nor is use of the word by a white man racist. However, teaching that use of the word gorilla is racist is wrong; it may even qualify as an abuse of power. I brought this up in class in a nice way, pointing out that perhaps he should not teach an Etymological Fallacy as fact. Carr suggested I might not want to be “Disruptive”, and then brushed over the topic with the class, most of whom had no idea of what I was talking about.

My friend is on alert to bring all Etymological Fallacies in after each class. I will be sure to post them here.