This thread is cracking me up.
I just gave the “etymology is not meaning” speech to one of my varsity scouts a couple of weeks ago, but apparently it could use wider circulation. One of the scouts was pulling the familiar line that goes something like: “don’t use that word, do you know what the word “dork” really means?”
Nearly every insult we have traces back to something vulgar. But, pretty much no one today who uses “jerk” or “dork” or “putz” (or even “jerkwad”) has in mind the vulgar origins. Words take on new meaning based on their usage and these are just general purpose insult words in today’s usage.
The mistake made by my varsity scout has a fancy name. It is called the etymological fallacy. If you look for it you will see it pretty regularly. Sometimes you’ll hear someone say that people should not call us “mormons” because that was originally an insult.
It is one thing to be naive about the connotations of a word. For example, when I was about 10 or 11 I saw at the store what I thought was a hilarious license plate frame which said on the top “be kind to trees” and on the bottom “eat beavers.” Picturing trees and beavers as mortal enemies in an ongoing battle was just random and silly enough to strike me as genius comedy at that age. After all, the trees can’t even defend themselves. I told my dad “we should buy that!” but for some reason he didn’t. The problem was not etymology, but the modern meaning of those words in their modern context.
It is another thing to be naive about the history of a word. If someone does not know that “mormon” started out as an insult, then we shouldn’t pretend they need to bone up on their early mormon history in order to be more sensitive in their use of labels. “Mormons” is just a neutral equivalent for Latter-day Saints in today’s usage. Repeat after me: words get their meaning from their usage.