Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

'I TRUST that Dot Wordsworth will explore the difference between celibacy and chastity for the benefit of your leader writer of 17 April,' wrote Mr Eric Dalzell on the letters page last week. Very well, but I don't think he's going to like it.

The leader writer had talked about the possibility of beauty contestants being both single and celibate. The phrasing nicely showed that he was using celibate to mean chaste. But ought he have done?

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (the Node) says celibate means `abstaining from marriage and sexual relations'. Normally I would be predisposed to disagree with the Node, but on this occasion I fear I agree with it. To do otherwise would be to fall into the etymological fallacy.

The etymological fallacy is to assert that words really mean what they used to mean. This is seldom the case. For example, if you say someone is rather an effete young man, you do not mean that he is exhausted by childbirth, though that is the original meaning of the word in English. (`Hens after three years become effete and barren,' wrote Goldsmith in his Natural History in 1774.) It comes from the Latin effetus (from exand fetus, `bred out', as it were).

The use of celibate as an adjective is first recorded only in the second quarter of the 19th century. …

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