Etymological fallacy: the devil’s work

Arguing for the virtue of idleness, Mark Kingwell says,

[N]otice the etymological traces contained in the English words “negotiate” and “otiose.” Otiose means redundant or useless. Negotiate means to transact affairs, to conduct business. But the shared Latin root tells the story. Neg-otium, the negation of that which lies beyond use, is the origin of business. Business is an obliteration, a nulling, not a positive value in its own right. And what is negated? The very thing, idling, which we now condemn as useless. We have got it exactly backward.

This is specious reasoning at best. Two things are going on in this passage: Kingwell is erroneously equating negotiation with business, and in doing so, he is also committing the etymological fallacy with regard to the word negotiate. Anyone with fluency in English will likely agree that the word negotiate no longer means “not at leisure”; it has a specific meaning that necessarily involves two parties coming to some sort of agreement based on compromise. Kingwell’s assertion that negotiate is synonymous with business is false on two counts: first, the legitimate use of the term negotiate to mean “do business” has been obsolete for hundreds of years, at least according to the OED; and second, as we have seen, appealing to the etymological “not at leisure” connotation of negotiate in order to draw a parallel with business based on its etymology (busy + –ness) is fallacious.

Maybe if Kingwell had structured a “formal essay,” he could have made an argument for idleness that didn’t rely so heavily on the language used to talk about it. Is the etymological fallacy perhaps the mark of an idle mind?


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