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Discussion 3 to Meditation 796
Dictionaries get updated

by: JT

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I am fairly certain* all three definitions given in Meditation 796 were quoted accurately in October 2009 when the article was originally published.

Dictionaries do get revised and it is not surprising that definitions do get updated to reflect changing usage. It should be recognized rather than throwing accusations of "misleading." 

Of course what is misleading, on the other hand, is the unsubstantiated claim

Atheist=non-theist. A-theist. It's as simple as that.

It is not that simple. This is what is known as a false etymology. The word atheist entered the English language almost 100 years before the  word theist. Atheist arrived in English as a complete word. It was not formed by putting an "a" in front of "theist." Atheist was borrowed from French - where the word athéiste also arrived about 100 years before théiste did.** This is information readily available in a good etymological dictionary. Similar information can also be found online as below (current as of 24 October 2013).

atheist (n.) 

1570s, from French athéiste (16c.), from Greek atheos "without god, denying the gods; abandoned of the gods; godless, ungodly," from a-"without" + theos "a god"

theist (n.)

1660s, from Greek theos "god" (see Thea) + -ist. The original sense was that later reserved to deist: "one who believes in a transcendant god but denies revelation." Later in 18c. theist was contrasted with deist, as allowing the possibility of revelation.

Etymology is not all that useful in determining what an old word means today, definitions change over time. Even if you have the etymology correct, it is generally unwise to use it to support an argument for a current definition. It is more useful for examining what a word used to mean. As the creator of Online Etymology writes: Etymologies are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago.



* As I tend to check to ensure that links in articles are correct when I publish them, my certainty on this matter is greater than 95%.

** Perhaps an interesting undergraduate philosophy thesis could be written to investigate why a word for atheism was required before a word for theism was needed.

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