So I’ve been reading a book by James G. Cowan called The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition, and I’ve been putting up with balderdash like “This suggests that science has no way of answering problems posed by the spirit, however much it might claim to have identified the structure of DNA and the principles of life in the laboratory. The Rainbow Snake as an expression of world creation resolves that problem…” because he has a lot of interesting things to say about Aboriginal culture, but this, this is too much:

The etymology of the word ‘rite’ more properly suggests the origin of Aboriginal ceremony than does its obvious association with religious ritual. This, of course, is never far away, as most ceremonies are in one way or another religious. But the earlier etymological meaning, deriving from the Latin word recte meaning ‘in a straight line, perpendicularity [sic], uprightly’ goes nearer to the heart of what Aboriginal ritual means to them.

The etymological fallacy—using a word’s etymology as a guide to its current meaning—is bad enough, but at least it can get people to learn etymologies. This alleged etymology is just plain wrong. The word rite is from Latin ritus ‘ceremony,’ which has nothing to do with rectus ‘straight.’ Don’t publishers fact-check any more? (That’s a rhetorical question; I know they don’t.)


  1. I’m uncertain why this case would be considered an etymological fallacy. Cowan isn’t trying to revert a word back to its original meaning. He merely suggests that an earlier etymological meaning “goes nearer to the heart of what Aboriginal ritual means to them.” He seems to be bringing it up just as a guide to the reader to better understand how Aboriginal people think of their rites. I feel like the focus is on helping understand their point of view rather than using it “as a guide to current meaning.”

  2. My post was chopped there at the end. It should have read “… rather than using it as a guide to (a word’s) current meaning.”

  3. Well of course the adverb rite can mean the same as recte (or, as Varro points out, rate), and I could swear that some ancient source claims that this is the actual etymology. It certainly seems like a plausible ancient etymological speculation.

  4. Huh. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be so hard on poor Mr. Cowan then.

  5. This kind of thing is a staple of Chinese exegesis. Words “ming” mean name, command, and bright [perspicuous, perspicaceous], and these concepts are routinely interwoven in explanations (for example, of the “rectification of names”). I have even seen “ming” words meaning “birdcall” and “dim” dragged in. Some of these mings are etymologically related and some not.
    Whether we should use this method today is another question.

  6. That was me and no, I don’t know how it happened.

  7. Melissa Spore says

    I fully support the Hat’s criticism. Whatever careful (or weasle) wording Mr Cowan gives, he clearly counts on association between right and rite. He choose the distant “recte’ to exploit the association. He didn’t choose upright or straight to introduce the concept. He wants to benefit (gain some credibility) from the etymological fallacy.
    This reminds me of my long-cherished confusion of hyster–(Greek huster, womb) with histori (from historein, to inquire, & histr, learned man). I loved the idea that history referred to womb. Once I learned of my error, I continued to exploit the false connection. I vehemently argued against herstory, by claiming that “history” had deep female connotations. I was just a bit clever about not saying they had the same roots. Like Mr. Cowan, it served my purpose.
    Of course, I’ve reformed, abandoned such practices, and now live a pure and etymologically correct life.

  8. That sort of exegesis is even better when used by Japanese Confucianists, really. One step further from the original language, in terms of phonology, and they’re still citing the puns as evidence. (And they thought the deconstructionists were original….)
    The author would have done better to go with some later Confucian understandings of rite and ritual, which I think pretty much lines up with what he wants to say about the societal ordering functionality business.

  9. The other example that LH provides of the kind of thinking used by the author, makes it rather improbable that the author would implicitly base their (I’m always at a loss for a non-gender-specific pronoun in such cases) argument on some ancient etymological source.
    The more prosaic, and plausible, explanation of this error, it seems to me, is that the author simply confuses rite and right, the latter most definitely a straightforward heir of rectus.
    Just a sloppy mind.
    On the other hand, unlearned that I am, I couldn’t figure out if Justin’s comment was ironic.

  10. If I understand the ‘etymological fallacy’ correctly, I don’t think Cowan has committed it here. If he had said, ‘A Maypole dance is not a rite, because they don’t dance in a straight line,’ that would be an etymological fallacy; likewise if he said, ‘This road runs straight, therefore it is a rite.’ The excerpt you quoted merely seems to be commenting on the word’s etymology, not making any judgements about what it does or should mean. (The fact that the etymology is wrong is a whole different kettle of fish.)
    Is that right? I admit I only know about the etymological fallacy from looking it up, so maybe there’s another type I’m not aware of.

  11. I think of the fallacy as I defined it above: using a word’s etymology as a guide to its current meaning. It doubtless has a more specialized sense I’m not aware of.

  12. I thought he was arguing something like ‘just as “right” and “rite” have the same etymology, so too are law and ritual fully intertwined in Aboriginal religion and society and reflect this [spurious] etymology’. Which even if it’s not a true etymological fallacy of the type Laura mentions, is still pretty dodgy reasoning. Like the cultural theory trope of remember and re-member. Used to drive me nuts.
    incidentally, it reminds me of an aphorism the Anglo-Saxon professor at ANU used to use from time to time, about the pun of lore and law (which are homophones in Australian English). No claim to common etymology, just a note of their similarity and a play on that to explore the role of norm enforcement in Anglo-Saxon mythology.

  13. Working of your headline I was about to react to the etymological relationship between right (as in true / correct) and rite (as in ritual) which I understand goes back to Sanskrit “Rt” and is shared with Art and even Crafts ….
    Right as in rectliniear / straight – I can’t comment on, but I would suspect a link in their murky past – but I’m no expert.
    The point I was going to make is that whilst this is never a guide to current meaning, it does give clues as to the concepts and common meanings intended when the divergent words were first coined.

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