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P

eople of the Word need to know something about words, and in my previous column I introduced you to one very common but (mostly) wrong idea about words: the “etymological fallacy”—the idea that words always mean what they used to mean. One example I used was the word “fabulous,” which comes from the word “fable.” “Fabulous” can indeed mean “fable-like.” I just read the following recently, an educated British unbeliever’s challenge to a Christian evangelist: “Should not the Bible be rewritten with the object of discarding the fabulous and reinterpreting the remainder?” He meant getting rid of Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions’ den, and any other stories that seem like mere fable (or legend, or myth) to modern people. Though he was wrong to apply it to the Bible, he used the word “fabulous” correctly. But you may never use it to mean “fable-like.” More likely you use fabulous to describe Swiss chocolate. (I do; appreciative readers may send Ritter Sport Alpine Milk to the address below.) There is a certain brand of person who likes to ferret out rarish historical word meanings such as “fablelike” and use them to parade his superior intelligence before others. These word police insist that “fabulous” shouldn’t be used to describe chocolate at all. “What?” they’ll say, “That chocolate is like a fable? Ha! Let me tell you what that word really means. . . .” Ammon Shea, who has written an excellent book called Bad English: A History of English Aggravation, said something perceptive about the word police: “I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful. I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they ‘care about language,’ which to me is simply a polite way of saying ‘I like to correct the language use of other people.’ We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares” (xiii). And more importantly, “fabulous” doesn’t “really mean” fable-like. That’s the etymological fallacy. God designed language so that words could develop multiple senses; context tells you which meaning the speaker or writer intends. If the context is chocolate, “fabulous” means “excellent.” If the context is old stories someone finds unbelievable, “fabulous” means “fable-like.” Words can mean what they used to mean, but they don’t have to. And if you insist on using “fabulous” to mean “fablelike,” what word are you going to use to describe that chocolate you’re sending me?

Dr. Mark L. Ward, Jr. writes Bible textbooks at BJU Press, designs church websites at Forward Design, and blogs at By Faith We Understand.

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