[Milton-L] more on fallacious

John Hale john.hale at otago.ac.nz
Wed Apr 16 22:19:51 EDT 2014

Milton and his readers would readily hear Latin "fallax" ("liable to deceive, FALLERE) behind "fallacious".

John Hale
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu [milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] on behalf of Gregory Machacek [Gregory.Machacek at marist.edu]
Sent: Thursday, 17 April 2014 12:36 p.m.
To: John Milton Discussion List
Subject: [Milton-L] more on fallacious

"fallacious fruit" though, didn't seem right to me.  Arguments, claims, lines of reasoning--those are the kinds of things that I think of as being describable as "fallacious," even hopes, maybe.  I'm not claiming it has the same meaning as "falsifiable," but I think of it as applicable to the same kinds of things.  And fruits aren't falsifiable (just to illustrate how wrong "fallacious fruit" sounds to my ears).

Here's the interesting thing one discovers when one looks the word up in the OED.  The meaning I'm thinking of is the first given:  "containing a fallacy," and it's witnessed as early as 1509.  Extended meanings (of persons, deceptive; of things, misleading) have their earliest witnesses in the mid seventeenth century.  The OED thinks Milton's use of it in our passage is so much different even from those that it has to supply a special meaning--"that causes disappointment; mocking expectation, delusive"--for which our passage is the earliest witness!  If the OED editors are right, this word would have been, in any application other than to arguments, a relatively new one to Milton's readers and, in the sense in which he uses it, entirely new.  They would have been assigning its meaning from what the context clearly demands.  But we need the kind of meaning the OED gives it because it's not quite true, as Oydin frames it for us, that "it allegedly promised . . ."  It didn't promise anything.  It's name maybe promised something.  Satan promised something about it.  Or, to shift agency, Eve built up expectations about it, that were then disappointed.

But this is a pretty remarkable deviation from, or alteration of, the word's basic meaning because it locates agency differently.  A fallacious argument is itself the thing doing the misleading.  But a fallacious fruit is just failing to deliver the expectations that someone outside of it placed on it; the agency comes from that someone rather than the fruit.  Or, to flip it around, something that deludes only a result of someone else's disappointed expectations is being described with a word that would more normally be applied to something that intrinsically has a deceptive quality.  The chain of near synonyms in Oydin's subject line gets us from fallacious to delusive, but a very important shift has occurred along the way.

Now, if it were Adam and Eve calling the fruit "fallacious," I'd understand:  they'd be shifting the blame from their wrong expectations to the fruit, as having duped them.  But this is the narrator speaking.  He ought to know fruits can't be fallacious.  Why are actual special qualities now being assigned to this fruit that, we know better, was chosen for no special reason?

fellatio-inducing, I still don't know.  But there's more for us to milk from fallacious here.

Greg Machacek
Professor of English
Marist College
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.richmond.edu/pipermail/milton-l/attachments/20140417/0b8cd02c/attachment.html>

More information about the Milton-L mailing list