Five paragraphs on the pentathlon

In news from the burgeoning field of the anthropology of numbers, the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne has decided that the pentathlon will now comprise only four distinct events, combining the shooting and running components into a single event. But this change in structure will not be accompanied by a change in nomenclature, sparking a barrage from the linguistic blogosphere, such as this Language Log post, discussing the change and the inevitable cries of etymological impurity. Now Bill Poser at LL has very sensibly pointed out that since the shooting and running event is a two-event sport (thus a biathlon), three events plus a biathlon is still five separate disciplines and the etymological issue is a non-starter.

These issues involving numerical prefixes are very obvious instances where we think that the etymology should correspond to reality. Of course if something involves the prefix penta-, it should involve five, right? Not so fast. This is really a special case of the logical fallacy known as the etymological fallacy: the notion that the current meaning of words ought to reflect their etymology. It rarely does, and there is no reason we should expect every language user to be a language historian.

The etymological fallacy in English is normally applied only to a particular set of words: scientific and technical vocabulary that form part of the Greek and Latin superstrate introduced into the language from the 16th century onward. Latin and Greek vocabulary is often seen to be logical, rational, and predictable, in contrast to wayward Anglo-Saxon and French elements in the modern English lexicon. It isn’t true, as anyone who has studied classical languages for any period of time will attest. Rather, when borrowing and developing this aspect of the English lexicon, early modern wordsmiths borrowed fairly regular elements (predictable morphemes that could be combined with others), and left a lot of the complexity behind, leaving the illusion that Latin is a purely logical language.

I grant that if someone tried to redefine triskaidekaphobia as fear of the number 11, I might feel a bit put out. The semantic transparency of numerical prefixes contributes to the sensible notion that we should know what they mean unambiguously. But by that logic, we ought to insist that decimate be used to describe only the destruction of one-tenth of something (which earned the word a spot on the annual Banished Words List some years back). And don’t even get me started on the debate between biannual and semiannual. In this case, the ‘quinquemation’ of the pentathlon doesn’t bother me in the least.

(Crossposted to the Phrontistery)

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