What’s an ‘etymological fallicist’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word phrase: etymological fallicist…

As a result of my own recent foray into video —you can see my work here — I’ve started watching more Internet videos. No cat videos for me, unless they feature Henri. Instead, I try to restrict myself to ones that are about words or writing.

Recently, I watched a terrific interview with dictionary writer Kory Stamper (pictured above) who works for Merriam-Webster. In addition to teaching me the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist efforts in dictionary writing, she also gave me my word of the week. In the interest of accuracy, however, I need to call it a term of the week, because it is actually two words: etymological fallicist.

As Stamper explains it, an etymological fallicist is a person who believe that modern words should only mean what they meant in their language of origin. For example, an etymological fallicist would argue that the word decimate should hold only the Latin meaning, “to kill one tenth of.” And the more contemporary meaning — the killing of a large number of people or widespread devastation — should be viewed as incorrect.

I appreciated Stamper’s wholesale dismissal of this view: “That’s fine,” she says, “except that’s just not how English works.” For an insightful and entertaining view of the word that goes into building dictionaries, be sure to watch Stamper’s nine-minute video.