Fallacies From the Dictionary

Why Using the Dictionary in a Debate is a Dual-Edged Sword

Ever since I developed a fascination with languages and how they work, my eyes have been open to a collection of errors that humans commonly make in both their reasoning (the way they use their noodles) and their semantics (the way they use words). These errors all center around human disagreement and our fondness of appealing to external sources which have ambiguous authority.

When a person makes an argument, they are attempting to persuade someone or multiple people that their position is true, and they do so by providing several reasons in support of their position. If I want to make the argument that it is not raining outside, I might state that there are no clouds in the sky, and the sun is shining, and the ground is dry. Furthermore, I would appeal to the total absence of raindrops in the sky as evidence that it is not raining. If I want to make the argument that the post office is closed, I would show a verifiable listing of the post office’s hours, draw attention to the fact that the post office closes on Sundays, and finally point out that today is a Sunday.

However, there are times when, during an argument, one takes issue not with the case being presented, but with the terminology being used. Objections thenceforth are not attacking the argument’s premises but rather the content of the premises: the words being used rather than the overall meaning of the words used together in context. This can lead to some rather sneaky flaws in reasoning as well as semantics. To make my case, I shall start off with a question:

Are dictionaries prescriptive or descriptive?

If dictionaries are prescriptive, it means that the entries in the dictionary prescribe the proper usage of the word entries contained within them. If you do not use a word in such a way that conforms to the definition provided for that word by the dictionaries, then you have not used the word correctly. A prescriptive dictionary is therefore a check against the natural changes that most languages undergo organically, and if used properly and consistently could possibly slow down the semantic changes of words in the language.

If dictionaries are descriptive, it means that the entries in the dictionary merely describe how words are currently used in the language. If you do not use a word in such a way that conforms to the definition provided for that word by the dictionaries, then you might not be using the word correctly; however, if enough people use the word in the same way that you use it, then the dictionaries would update their entries to better reflect the new usage of the word. A descriptive dictionary is therefore more of a lexicon reporting on the words that exist in a language and how they are used, rather than a sentinel guarding against semantic evolution. It tells you how words are used, not how they ought to be used.

It seems clear to me, based on how natural languages behave and are used, that dictionaries are descriptive de facto, even if they are intended to be prescriptive. You can see this in action when you consider that new words come into being simply based on popular will, or a word will change either its meaning or its function due to popular usage. A common example is using “Google” as a verb instead of a noun.

Let me Google that for you.

You can Google the address if you don’t know where they live.

Can you Google the recipe for me?

Google is the name of a company. It is a brand. Popular culture has also decided that the word “Google” can be a verb as well as a noun. Other words that have been created due to vox populi are such examples as “selfie”, “kek”, “zozzle”, “incel”, “boomer”, “fortnite”, “weeb”, “cuck”, and other common slang words. These are words that you can use in a sentence and many (though not all) will know exactly what you mean. They are words because we have collectively agreed that they are words. They have no etymology beyond themselves (except for “cuck”, which is merely a shortening of “cuckold”). They were borne out of meme culture and popular culture. Language purists will say these are not true words, but their arguments are fundamentally baseless because people are using these words to communicate effectively regardless of these words being absent from the dictionary.

Now we can truly get to what I really want to talk about, which are the fallacies from the dictionary. These are flaws in either reasoning or semantics that either derive from a misuse of the dictionary or misuse of the words found within. They are very common, but not always easy to spot, so I hope that by bringing them to your attention and describing them in detail, you can better guard yourself against them in the future. One quick caveat before we start: most of these fallacies are informal, which means they can appear in arguments that are otherwise logically valid.

Etymological Fallacy

A type of genetic fallacy wherein one asserts that the current definitions of words should or must correspond to the words’ historical meaning or etymology. This is a common argument used by language purists and those who argue for dictionary prescription. This fallacy can also be invoked by making a claim about a word based solely on its etymology.

The flaw in this line of reasoning is fairly obvious: words change meaning all the time. This is especially the case with languages that come into contact with other languages and cultures frequently, such as English. Isolated languages like Icelandic evolve very slowly because there are fewer external pressures to influence the meanings of words. English, however, is spoken in almost every country on every continent by thousands of different cultures. Modern English is also profoundly different from Old English; to illustrate the difference the word “bad” comes from the word “bǣddel”, which originally meant “hermaphrodite”. Are language purists going to insist that when you say that something is bad, you must therefore be calling it hermaphroditic?

Another thing to consider is that the etymology of words is sometimes either unclear or completely unknown. There is also the case of false friends: when words appear to have a shared etymology but in fact come from different sources. On the other side of the coin, sometimes a word has changed so far from its etymology that its current usage has nothing in common with what it originally meant.

Persuasive Definitions

A fallacy wherein one claims to describe a particular definition of a word as being the “commonly accepted” or “true” meaning of the word, which in reality the definition in question is contrived, unusual, or otherwise altered from its de facto meaning.

Atheism is a lack of belief.

Feminism just means equality.

A Democrat is a leftist who wants to tax corporations and undermine our economic freedom.

Islam is a religion of peace.

This fallacy comes up most commonly in conversations involving politics, sex, and religion. You can spot it if you can determine that the definition provided is too vague, too narrow, or insufficiently neutral. It comes up as a natural consequence of the ability for people to use language to communicate how they feel in addition to what they know. If I don’t like a politician, I can call them a “filthy communist” or a “racist republican” even if their actual politics don’t remotely resemble communism or republicanism. Substituting more appropriate definitions for loaded ones is usually done to persuade someone of your position or to make another person’s position seem less reasonable.

Now, you can refer to a “lack of belief in God” as atheism if you want to, especially if your peers agree to use that definition with you; but make sure that you define your terms before engaging with people who are not familiar with these niche definitions that are objectively less common and more likely to be misunderstood.

Equivocation

Related to persuasive definitions is the fallacy of equivocation. This fallacy functions as a sort of lexical bait-and-switch. You lead the argument with one definition of a word, and then switch to another definition in another premise. If you have ever seen Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine, you have seen equivocation in action.

  1. Socrates is Greek
  2. Greek is a language
  3. Therefore, Socrates is a language

  1. A feather is light
  2. That which is light cannot be dark
  3. Therefore, a feather cannot be dark

In the first example, the syllogism takes advantage of the ambiguity between the Greek people and the Greek language in order to lead to a false conclusion. In the second example, the meaning of light as in “not heavy” is implied in the first premise, and then a second meaning “bright” is introduced in the second premise without warning or introduction, leading to another false conclusion. Do not confuse equivocation with atanaclasis, however! Atanaclasis is not a fallacy, but a form of wordplay, such as No time is wasted when you’re getting wasted; that is, no time is poorly spent when you are placing yourself under the influence of alcohol. Here, the ambiguity is used for comedic effect, rather than to mislead.

Tautological Fallacies

There are two basic types of tautologies: logical and rhetorical. A logical tautology is any assertion that is true in every possible interpretation, such as universal statements like A = A, or The raven is black or the raven is not black, or Boys will be boys. A rhetorical tautology is a statement that reiterates the same idea twice, using different but synonymous morphemes each time — essentially: saying the same thing twice with different words.

There is some overlap between the two types, and it is easy to confuse the two. However, what they both have in common is that people feel that they have no place in definitions. I am sure you have heard your peers or teachers say “You cannot include the word you are defining in its definition”, or something to that effect. The problem is that you actually can; it just isn’t a very useful definition. If you asked me what a hammer was, and I replied “A hammer is a hammer”, I have said something that is incontrovertibly true. Therefore, to say that the definition I provided is “wrong” is, strictly speaking, untrue. A hammer can’t not be a hammer, so my definition is necessarily true. What one should say is that such a definition is not helpful or informative.

There are instances where being tautological is useful, however. This usually is the case in logic, where it can be beneficial to show that possibly necessary is tautological with necessary. Both phrases represent logically identical ideas, but that isn’t clear to someone who is not trained in modal logic. Therefore, using a tautology to draw attention to the identical nature of two terms is perfectly appropriate.

Beware misleading tautologies, however. This usually happens when someone uses tautology to try to persuade you of some belief or idea that is actually irrelevant to the tautology. The most notorious example is when one tries to argue in support of same-sex marriage by appealing to the pithy maxim Love is love. This maxim is necessarily true, but the fallacy is conflating an abstraction, such as love, with something tangible and having distinct properties, such as legal marriage. Love is, in fact, completely irrelevant to the legality of a marriage, or even the definition of marriage (you can marry someone without being in love with them!). Same-sex marriage might be just as valid as other forms of marriage, or it might not, but you cannot argue that position with a tautology.

Loaded Language

The fallacy of loaded words is so common, you probably already knew about it, if not by name. It is invoked when one deliberately uses words and phrases with strong and often negative connotations in order to influence one’s audience’s perception of a certain thing, person, or idea. These connotations go beyond the dictionary definition of the word and communicate how one feels about something (and that you should feel the same way!).

Athalas? You mean Kingsfoil? It’s a weed[instead of plant].

Jim Acosta is a pundit[instead of journalist].

I am a strong advocate for investment in public services[instead of “public spending”].

He is anti-choice[instead of pro-life].

This is all part of the Obama-Biden regime[instead of government or administration].

This fallacy is at its core an appeal to emotion, and it can be quite sinister when it is used to delegitimize or dehumanize hapless individuals who have no idea they have attracted so much negative attention. George Orwell wrote on the use of loaded language in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

To parody the use of loaded language by politicians, YouTuber Shoe0nHead filmed a short comedy sketch wherein she announced her candidacy for president, describing her political platform as “Pro- good things and anti- bad things”.

Loki’s Wager

In Norse mythology, Loki, the god of mischief, made a bet with a dwarf named Brok, wagering his own head. He lost the wager, and the dwarves eventually approached Loki to collect his head. Loki insisted that he had no problem relinquishing his head, but he was adamant that the dwarves had no right to take even the smallest portion of his neck. A debate ensued: obviously, they knew where Loki’s head was and where his neck was, but they could not agree where one started and the other ended. Ultimately, Loki got to keep his head, but Brok stitched Loki’s mouth shut as punishment for his appeal to ambiguity.

Loki’s Wager is a fallacy wherein one unreasonably insists that a certain word, term, or concept cannot be defined and is, therefore, unable to be discussed. This is a clever way of deflecting legitimate arguments and criticisms online. The best way to defeat the wager is by establishing a reasonable or at least a working definition for the term in question, or to simply call out the unreasonable party for being unreasonable and avoiding the argument.

Use/Mention Distinction

In logic, there is a clear distinction between using a word and mentioning a word. The distinction is simple: are you talking about the word itself, or the thing that the word describes?

Use: Cheese is derived from milk.

Mention: ‘Cheese’ is derived from the Old English word ċēse.

In the first instance, you are using the word to refer to the thing it describes. You are talking about the foodstuff called “cheese”, which comes from milk. In the second instance, you are talking about the word “cheese”, which comes from Old English.

Sometimes, a person will be unreasonably pedantic and mention the word when they ought to be using it, or using it when they ought to merely mention it. This is more difficult to do in written language, at least in English, because most mentions of words are placed within quotation marks (which is exactly what I did in my example if you noticed). This makes it more clear whether one is using or mentioning a word.

Other times, one may deliberately fail to properly distinguish use from mention in order to come to false conclusions, mislead others, produce meaningless statements, or commit category errors. Just remember: “copper” contains six letters and is not a metal, but copper is a metal and contains no letters. This distinction may seem pedantic itself, but it has its uses.

I have one more fallacy from the dictionary to show you, and this one I will explain in greater depth because I think this example truly underscores the hazards of relying too heavily on dictionaries when engaging in intellectual discourse with people. Language is a lot more dynamic than the wooden, literalistic approach insisted upon by language purists, semantics is poorly taught in schools and thus poorly understood by most people, and logic usually isn’t even taught outside of colleges. When someone misunderstands all three, you get the Socratic fallacy.

Socratic Fallacy

In 1903, philosopher G.E. Moore published a book, Principia Ethica. In it, he argued that it would be fallacious to explain that which is good reductively, i.e., in terms of such natural properties as “pleasant” or “desirable”. He named this fallacy the “naturalistic fallacy”, though you may recognize it its more popular cousin: the Appeal to Nature.

At face value, this seems pretty uncontroversial. It is fallacious to say that because a property is natural, it must therefore be good or morally acceptable. Moore argued that when philosophers try to define good in terms of what is “pleasant” or desirable, they are committing the naturalistic fallacy. There have been criticisms of this argument, but we are here not to analyze the internal logic of his argument. Rather, we are going to get a little meta and talk about the logical and semantic appropriacy of the term “naturalistic fallacy”.

Another philosopher, William Frankena, read Moore’s book, and published a response to the book in the philosophy journal Mind in 1939. Frankena criticized Moore’s articulation of the fallacy, claiming Moore’s fallacy was an even broader misunderstanding arising from trying to define a term using properties that are not synonymous. In particular, Frankena said that the term “naturalistic fallacy” was a complete misnomer.

On the first word, “naturalistic”, Frankena objected that Moore should not call his fallacy as such because it is not even naturalistic to begin with. Specifically, Moore’s fallacy is not limited to natural properties, but Frankena also noted that Moore objected to defining good in terms of natural or non-natural properties. The naturalistic fallacy was therefore not naturalistic in any meaningful sense of the word. On the second word, “fallacy”, Frankena scolded Moore, a philosopher, for using logical terminology to address a semantics issue. A fallacy is a flaw in a person’s reasoning, but the naturalistic fallacy discusses the semantics of “good”. It is therefore describing a semantic error, not a flaw in reasoning, and so cannot be considered a fallacy.

Moore argued that the question “Is that which is pleasurable good?” is an open question with no definitive answer, and therefore pleasurable cannot be synonymous with good. Frankena likewise rejected this argument, pointing out that the existence of open questions merely reflects the fact that it makes sense to ask whether two things that may be identical are, in fact, identical. Thus, even if good and pleasurable are logically equivalent properties, it nevertheless makes sense to ask whether they truly are identical. The answer may be “yes”, or it may be “no”, but the question remains legitimate. This stands in opposition to Moore’s view. Moore believed that sometimes competing answers could be dismissed without argument. Frankena objected to this because he observed that line of reasoning begs the question.

If there is any moral to this discussion, it would have to be that using a dictionary in a debate can be a double-edged sword. The tactics you use with your dictionary can just as easily be turned against you, or worse: they could backfire entirely! It is best to avoid pedantry, clearly define your terms at all times, and avoid ambiguity like the plague. Finally, understand how language works, even if it isn’t how you want it to work, and do not just dismiss a person’s argument as “just semantics”. Semantics is behind every word ever uttered by human beings. Only a fool would disregard it just because the subject is frustrating at times.

Hello. I am Nok. I like music, philosophy, and books.