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The Attractiveness of Etymology

The etymological fallacy is one of the most well known fallacies in biblical exegesis. In fact, many people “know” it who don’t understand it.

I was reminded of why etymological explanations are attractive this morning as I was reading Isaiah in the LXX. I came to the word “toparcos” in Isaiah 36:9. Now I couldn’t remember seeing this word before, though I know I have seen it, since I’ve read this very passage before. Almost instantly the etymology of the word struck me, “topos” and “arc-” (in its various forms), thus “rule of a place,” possibly district governor.

Of course, I looked it up. And that is indeed the definition provided.

Those who work with languages will not be at all surprised by any of this. My point is simply that the reason people tend to be attracted to the etymological fallacy is simply the general value of etymology. It solves a few problems for you, and then you try to make it solve everything else. To someone with a hammer, everything is a nail.

Which has led me to use the term “anti-etymological fallacy” by which I mean the fallacy of accusing everyone who appeals to etymology at any point in their argument of the etymological fallacy.

Etymology is useful. It’s sometimes a helpful pointer to meaning. It can help one discover the options when one is deciphering an ancient document. It doesn’t determine meaning.

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