True Meaning of the Word

The appeal to the “true meaning of the word” is advanced in opposition to discourses which are said to use an incorrect, improper or superficial meaning of a given word. This appeal produces a stasis of definition, S. Definition (2). The true meaning of a word can be sought in:

— Its etymological meaning
— Its morphology
— The meaning of the corresponding word in another language.

1. Etymological argument

The label “argument by etymology” corresponds to different kinds of arguments, according to the meaning given to etymology.

  1. Under the heading “argument from etymology”, some modern texts discuss phenomena related to related words (Dupleix, 1603).
  2. In contemporary use, the etymological meaning of a word is the meaning of the oldest historical root identified in the word’s history. Etymological argument values the meaning of this root by considering that this ancient meaning corresponds to the true and permanent meaning of this word, which has been altered by historical evolution to produce a contemporary perverted and misleading meaning. This etymological meaning is used in argumentation exploiting a definition.

Atom comes from / is a Greek word composed of the negative prefix a- and a noun meaning “cutting”; it means “in-divisible”. So you cannot break the atom.

Democracy comes from / is a Greek word composed of demos “people” kratos “rule”. In Syldavia, the people don’t rule, they vote and forget. Thus, Syldavia is not in a democracy.

The appeal to etymology is itself supported by an argumentation by etymology, since the word etymology is derived from a Greek root ètumos meaning “true”.

Knowledge of etymology being culturally valued, the argument by etymology gives the speaker a certain ethotic posture of majesty and learned authority. It serves very well the strategy of destruction of the discourse “you don’t even know the language you claim to speak”, S. Destruction.

2. Argumentation based on the structure of the word

Lat. notatio, “the act of marking a sign … to designate […] to note”, as well as “etymology” (Gaffiot [1934], Notatio).

Cicero in the Topics defines the argument “ex notatione” (Topics, VIII, 35: 78), translated as “argument by etymology”. This translation takes the word etymology with its ancient meaning, “true”. The true sense of the word under examination is now defined as the meaning reconstructed by the correct analysis of the word (and not as its original historical meaning). One of the examples of argument discussed by Cicero in this context deals with a conflict of interpretation of a compound legal term (still in use today) the postliminium (Top., VIII, 36, p. 78). The postliminium is the right of a prisoner returning to his country to recover the properties and social position he held before his captivity. Cicero’s discussion concerns the establishment of the correct meaning of the word, relying on its linguistic structure, without any clear allusion to its etymology in the contemporary sense of the term.

A contradictory report (joint report) is a report reproducing the declarations of the two parties, and not a self-contradictory verbal report or a report contradicting another.


Argumentation by the structure of the word thus connects two argumentations:

— The first argumentation establishes the meaning of the compound word on the basis of the meaning of its terms and its morphological structure. This form of argumentation is relevant to all idioms whose meaning depends more or less on that of the terms that compose them. It is based upon linguistic knowledge and technique, S. Definition (1).

— A second argumentation exploits the “true” meaning thus established for some legal conclusion, according to the general mechanisms of argumentation by the definition, S. Definition (3).

The argument by the structure of the word functions as a way of avoiding conflict of interpretations.

3. Arguing from the meaning of the word in another language

One can look for the true meaning of the word in other languages, which for various reasons are considered closer to the “origin” or the “essence” of things. One such language is Chinese. The word crisis, for example, can be defined as “a time of intense difficulty or danger” (Google, Crisis). In search of “what crises really are”, one can shift to “what the word crisis really, truly, means”, and call on the word’s Chinese equivalent. The Chinese word meaning crisis is a compound of two word-signs, meaning respectively “danger” and “opportunity”. So crises are opportunities; and, by an argument based on the Chinese definition, we deduce that:

The opportunistic approach of the crisis then takes on its full meaning: Not to seize the opportunity of a crisis, means miss a chance, perhaps hidden, but within reach. (Stéphane Saint Pol, [Wei Ji, A return to the Roots][1])

The argument presupposes that the Chinese language has elaborated and preserved a better concept of crisis, closer to the essence of the thing, and better adapted to the modern world.

[1]]. (09-20-2013).