Dispelling Etymological Myths, Version 1.5 . . .
I apologize ahead of time for the atrocious way in which this editor imports Word files. My carefully aligned bibliography is a mess that I don't even want to begin to tackle.
Well, I'm finally pissed off enough to want to, once and for all, post something that I think will be extremely useful. I'm sick and tired of reading posts wherein the authors think they've done some etymology on the words atheism and atheist and that they're correct. I'm tired of reading how atheist is supposed to be a root plus the negating affix 'a'. I'm tired of hearing how the word is Greek in origin as though it came directly into English from Greek (totally preposterous) or that it is an ancient Greek loanword like terms in certain sciences. I'm tired of people claiming that atheism is a lack of belief or is disbelief.
This thread is meant to put to rest the annoying misinformation abound and propagated even here, in this very (usual) haven of reason, evidence and truth, about the etymology and definitions of the words atheism and atheist as well as theism, theist, deism and deist.
A Brief Introduction into Etymology
Etymology is the study of the origins and history of the form and meaning of words. As a study within Linguistics (particularly concerned with Semantics) it may be considered a branch of Diachronic Linguistics.1
An etymon is the linguistic form from which a later form derives.1
The Etymological Fallacy and its Application to Atheism and Atheist
This fallacy is simply the belief that the earliest use of a word historically contains the correct meaning of that word.1
This fallacy is often employed when the definitions of atheism or atheist are given. The fallacy is so common that the definitions applied to the two terms is actually confused with the etymology of the two terms such that the etymology that must be assumed is completely false.
An example of the etymological fallacy at work is when 'history' is taken to mean 'investigation' because the Greek etymon carried that meaning.1
The Folk Etymology (The Folk Etymological Fallacy) and its Application to Atheism and Atheist
A folk etymology occurs when a word or phrase is taken to come from a particular etymon because of some association in form or meaning between the two and is changed to suit that association.1
An example of this folk etymology where the form changes due partly to the associated meaning but also because of the closeness in the form of the word is the Old English sam-blind (half-blind) becoming sand-blind (literally blinded by sand) as English speakers became unable to make sense of the element sam (half) due to the vast changes English underwent during the shift to Middle English.2
This may be part of what is occurring with the two main terms we're investigating here. There is a tendency for people to associate atheism and atheist with the English tradition (likely the result of French influence upon the language during the Norman Conquest, otherwise wholly Latin) of using the a- affix to mean 'not' when attached to a root word, and defining the word thusly.
Another folk etymology is to associate the words with the early Ancient Greek atheos (ἄθεος) and derive their meanings thusly.
The Real Ancient Greek Words
Where It All Came From
The early Ancient Greek word atheos (ἄθεος, from the privative ἀ- + θεός 'god' ) meant 'without gods' or 'lack of belief in gods'. In 5th century BCE the word changed to mean 'denying the gods; godless; ungodly' with more active connotations than asebēs (ἀσεβής), 'impious'. The early Ancient Greek atheotēs (ἀθεότης), 'atheism' was an abstract noun that was in use. The Greek atheos was transliterated by Cicero into the Latin atheos and was used in the pejorative sense.3
The Ancient Greek Words in English
Hypothetically the closest any English words come to having any of those Ancient Greek words as etymons, which would more correctly be called loanwords in this case, are the words ungodly, atheos (ἄθεος) and ungodliness, atheotēs (ἀθεότης).4 These words, in actuality, only correspond closely to the Greek words and 'ungodly' is a Germanic loanword which has undergone morphological and phonological changes to conform to English spelling conventions and phonology.5 Ungodliness is actually un- + godly + -ness.
The Real English Etymons
The French Words Enter English
The (Middle) French word athée, 'atheist; godless' is first attested in English use as atheist, 'one who denies or disbelieves in the existence of god' in 1571. The French athée comes from the Latin atheos which was transliterated into Latin from the early Ancient Greek atheos (ἄθεος) by Cicero as noted. However the meaning attested in 1571 corresponds to the meaning in Modern English, it must be noted that the connotation of the word and its use as grievous insult would have meant that the term would not have actually been used by anyone who would privately call herself an atheist until the 18th century. Indeed, writers of the time who would retrospectively have the terms atheist or atheistic applied to them avoided, sometimes at the cost of intellectual honesty, the use of language which could have implicated them as atheists.3,4,5,6,7
In about 1587 the first attestation of the English word atheism is found. The word comes from the French athéisme which comes from French athée and from then follows the etymology of athée back to the Greek. The -isme suffix in French is derived from the Latin -ismus which comes from the Greek -ismos (ζςμος). Atheism in English is first used, like atheist, to describe a personal disbelief in god in the 18th century.3,4,5,6,8,9,10
Theist, Deist, Theism and Deism
Theist and Theism
Theist is actually an English adaptation of the early Ancient Greek work theos (θεός), 'god' + -ist. It is dated to 1662 and meant 'one who believes in a transcendent god but denies revelation'. Theism 'belief in a deity' is recorded in 1678.3,4,5,8
The Modern English definition of theism is ' belief in the existence of a god or gods'. It, however, usually carries the connotation of monotheistic religions and would then mean 'belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world that transcends yet is immanent in the world'.8
Deist and Deism
Deist appears much earlier than any of the other terms here, except atheist and atheism being attested to in about 1621, though some sources suggest as early as 1555. The term comes from the French déiste which comes from the Latin deus 'god' + the French -iste. The term is typically understood to be a response to atheist and atheism and until the 18th century meant what today theist means. Deism comes into English around 1682 from the French déisme which comes from the Latin dues 'god'.3,4,5,8,10
The Modern English definition of deism is ' a movement or system of thought advocating natural religion, emphasizing morality, and in the 18th century denying the interference of the Creator with the laws of the universe'.8
Atheism in Modern English
Whatever else may be attached to the term atheism in order to further specify the particular philosophical position of the atheist, atheism is only 'a non-belief in god(s); a disbelief in god(s); a denial of the existence of god(s)' and an atheist is only one who adheres to the above position.*
Debunking the False Etymologies
Now that we've been armed with the actual etymologies and definitions of the terms atheist and atheism we are capable of debunking the etymological fallacy and the folk etymologies that erroneously define and delineate the terms.
Debunking the Etymological Fallacy
This fallacy requires a person to apply to the terms atheist and atheism the meaning of the early Ancient Greek atheos (ἄθεος) and to misrepresent that word as the etymon of the English terms and then to incorrectly translate the word as 'not a theist', though the word a does not feature in either the Greek or English and the privative a- in Greek does not equate with a- 'not' in English. As has been shown, the etymology of the words are very clear and the definitions throughout time and in each language are shown not to be 'not a theist' and even the last usage of the Greek word was 'denying the gods; godless; ungodly'. Clearly, this fallacy does not result in an accurate or meaningful definition of the term and must be avoided and corrected.3,11,12,13
Debunking the Folk Etymology
The first folk etymology mentioned above required a person to apply to the terms the convention of the prefix a-. The person must first begin with the assumption that theist is an older term than atheist. This is completely misguided and totally inaccurate and actually requires the person making the definition to, especially in the case of atheist, ignore the actual use of a-, as in 'atypical' ('not typical' ), and to infix the word a between a- and theist to arrive at the definition 'not a theist' instead of the nonsense that should result: 'not theist'. Besides the problems with the semantic errors here the actual etymology of the word, its historic usages and its current definition should make it quite obvious that the word is not formed from the later theist affixed to a-.
The later folk etymology mentioned above associates the early Ancient Greek atheos (ἄθεος) with the English terms and then actually applies the early Ancient Greek definition 'lack of belief in gods', which is similar to the Modern English definition. This folk etymology leaves the terms defined as though they meant that god(s) did in fact exist and that atheists lack a belief in them, it also presumes that the etymology of the words stem directly from the Greek.3,14
This particular folk etymology may seem to be very similar to a second type of etymological fallacy known as the logical etymological fallacy (which is similar to equivocation); however, I did not classify it as such because the actual definition of the word is quite close to the definition being equivocated on and the Greek and English words aren't actually historically connected in a direct way that could lead to the logical etymological fallacy except by the ignorant perception of someone who employs the folk etymology.12,15
1Crystal, David. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics Fifth Edition. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003
2Hickey, Raymond. "Semantic Change." In Studying the History of English. 2007. Essen University. 2008 <http://www.uniessen.de/SHE/HE_Change_Semantic.htm>
3 . Atheism. 2008. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism>
4 . "Etymology." In Atheism. 2005. Spiritus-Temporis.com, 2005. 2008 <http://www.spiritus-temporis.com/atheism/etymology.html>
5Douglas Harper. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001. Douglas Harper, 2001. 2008 <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php>
6 . athée. 2007. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ath%C3%A9e>
7 . athéiste. 2007. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ath%C3%A9iste>
8 . Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Meriam-Webster Inc., 2007- 2008. 2008 <http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/>
9 . -ism. 2008. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/-ism>
10Batzarov, Zdravko. "French Suffixes." In Orbis Latinus. 2000. Zdravko Batzarov. 2008 <http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/French/Grammar/French- Wordbuilding-Suffixes.html>
11 . False etymology. 2008. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_etymology>
12Curtis, Gary N. Fallacy Files. Gary N. Curtis, 2001-2007. 2008 <http://www.fallacyfiles.org/etymolog.html>
13 . Etymological Fallacy. 2007. Wikipedia. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymological_fallacy>
14Drake, Richard. "Folk Etymology." In Why2k. 2003. Richard Drake, 2003. 2008 <http://clublet.com/why?FolkEtymology>
15Tindale, Christopher W. Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2007
*A concise definition of atheism and atheist which fits the most basic and acceptable definitions as listed in most dictionaries.
Notes: This bibliography is not meant to be an exhaustive list of sources as this work is still in progress.
"Well the things that happen less often are more likely to be the result of the supper natural. A thing like loosing my keys in the morning is not likely supper natural, but finding a thousand dollars or meeting a celebrity might be."