Saturday, January 19, 2013

Studies in Words by C. S. Lewis

Source of book: My friend and colleague Carol.

I’ve read a variety of Lewis’ works over my lifetime, beginning with the Narnia books as a child, and continuing through the space trilogy, various short works, and a few of the theological works. The last two I have read, however, have been non-theological nonfiction. The Allegory of Love, a scholarly work on medieval romantic poetry, stretched me in many ways, but also forced me to learn enough Middle English to be, if not exactly fluent, at least able to follow along.

This book likewise has been both difficult and rewarding. Lewis wrote this book as a series of word studies for his students, with the intent that they better understand the range of historical and current meanings for several common, yet complex words.

Lewis starts by looking at the Greek and Latin words with similar or equivalent meaning. Like most educated upper-middle class Englishmen of his time, he had a thorough grounding in the classics, so these equivalents would have been important for use with many works in the cannon. For me, it was helpful to see the equivalent translations from the New Testament. Translations are, at best, a series of compromises, and seeing the different shades of meaning with different Greek words (and their Vulgate translations) and the different meanings within single Greek words was interesting. (Side note: I have been revisiting a number of verses within the Apostle Paul’s letters to see how certain words were translated in different contexts. I have been particularly interested in this because there are some English words in our translations which have been made the basis of some highly questionable “doctrines” by various preachers. As Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)

Just as one can easily read too much into a translated word, it is easy when reading works from the past to assume a modern meaning for a particular word. In many cases, meanings have changed and evolved in ways that are not obvious on first reading.

The key concept that Lewis introduces at the outset is the “dangerous sense” of a word. The “dangerous sense” exists when it is easy to read a word in a certain modern sense that was not dominant at the time the author wrote it. One easy example given is the use of “philosophy,” which we take in the metaphysical sense, whereas it used to mean the same idea as “science” means today. In many archaic senses, context will make the mistake obvious, but in with a true “dangerous sense,” context is not as helpful, and a knowledge of the dominant meaning at the time of the writing is necessary.

Related to this issue is the fact that many words originally had a purely descriptive meaning. (Villain comes to mind.)  Eventually, however, these words came to carry moral weight, either positive or negative. To read these into older works can cause an error of meaning.

To attempt to give a flavor of the author’s craft is difficult. Suffice it to say that Lewis writes clearly and deeply, and really does make the meanings of the words he chooses come to life: Nature, Sad, Wit, Free, Sense, Simple, Conscious/Conscience, World, and Life. These few words are enough to wish that he had lived a few decades more and had a chance to add many more to the list.

I made some notes as I read of things that particularly struck me at the time.

First, the discussion of the concept of “Natural” is phenomenal. We through that word around today in both its approving and pejorative sense. Things are “natural” as opposed to “artificial,” but also “natural” as opposed to “improved.” Lewis cuts to the heart of the issue: we use “natural” to mean in many cases “things I approve of.” Likewise, of particular interest to the lawyer is the concept of “natural law,” which has generally be used - and is still used - to refer to laws the speaker approves of. For example, Aristotle wrote of some men as being “natural” slaves, because he approved of slavery. Those arguing for women’s suffrage likewise argued that women were disenfranchised because of a bad law or custom, not because they were “naturally” inferior. The word becomes merely an assertion that one’s position is true, and thus not meaningful in a semantic sense.

In discussing the romantic poets (see my review of Wordsworth, for example), Lewis writes one of the best lines about the distaste for modernity I have ever read.

[I]t is superficial to say we have escaped from the works of man to those of Nature when in fact, smoking a man-made pipe, swinging a man-made stick, wearing our man-made boots and clothes, we pause on a man-made bridge to look down on the banked, narrowed, and deepened river which man has made out of the original wide, shallow, swampy mess, and across it, at a landscape which has only its larger geological features in common with that which would have existed if man had never interfered. But we are expressing something we really feel.

I fully sympathize with the love of “nature” in the poetic sense, both as a lover of poetry, and a man who has seen and loves the wilderness - one far more untouched than anything Lewis ever saw. That said, the impulse to use “natural” loosely and advocate for a return to “nature” can be a dangerous thing in the realm of public policy, where it is often used more for the preservation of a lucrative status quo than with any true understanding of what it means to be untouched by man.

Sometimes, the origin of a word is surprising. I was completely unaware, for example, that the root of the word “sad” meant “sated, full.” Who knew? Lewis traces the meanings through the years to arrive at our modern use. Another origin I had not heard previously was that of the “five wits,” which were originally the “inward” senses (as opposed to the outward ones we know as the five senses today): memory, estimation, fancy, imagination, and common sense. Another good one? Who has not heard the phrase, “world without end” in the liturgy? In the sense it is used there, it means time, not location. Thus, we might say “forever.”

I also enjoyed the section on wit, which originally meant intelligence, but is now often used for, as Lewis put it, “that sort of mental agility or gymnastic which uses language as the principal equipment of its gymnasium.”

It is in this section that the author notes that when writers go to lengths to define what a word “does not mean,” it means that the word is coming to mean that very thing.

Another insight about the use of language that I appreciated was the fact that the purpose of opprobrious language is not to describe, but to hurt. This is precisely how “villain” went from meaning a person of lowly birth to meaning a bad man: it was worse to be called a low class person.  As Lewis puts it, “all except the best men would rather be called wicked than vulgar.”

Also related to this is Lewis’ discussion of the various forms of “free,” including “liberal” in the sense of the liberal arts. “Only he who is neither legally enslaved to a master nor economically enslaved by the struggle for subsistence, is likely to have, or to have the leisure for using, a piano or a library.”

Useful legal history abounds as well. I loved the tracing of the idea of the sentence for a crime from sentience, the knowledge of one’s own existence, through the idea of intelligent thought to the decision by a judge, to finally the result of the decision and thought process itself.

“Simple” also underwent an interesting moral transformation. From its one-time meaning as “without duplicity,” it acquired a sense of stupidity. What once meant goodness came to mean something much different. As Lewis notes, this also happened to innocent, pious, and respectable. Even more so, sanctimonious has completely flipped its meaning from a good to one of the worst possible. Perhaps this is due to the fine line between genuine and faked virtue.

So many of these words tie in together in the book, because of their “moral” component. “Nature,” above is one, and another is “conscience” in its role as a lawgiver. I wish I had the space and time to simply reproduce the excellent discussion by the author of this point. All of us come to our moral decisions with certain assumptions about basic facts, and a difference in beliefs about those basic facts will lead to a difference in where a person is led by “conscience.” It is my opinion that much of the political ill will in our times comes not because one side is inherently either illogical or “evil,” as the accusation seems to go these days, but because the underlying understanding of the operative facts differ. We see and experience things differently, and simply directing vitriol at the other side accomplishes nothing. Neither does assuming that those who disagree with us are evil to the core, having “seared their consciences with a hot iron.” (Another side note here: the Biblical passage refers to those who advocate for legalism. This is not obvious at all to legalistic groups, who use it to brow-beat those who disagree with the minutiae of their observance...)

Yet another great observance on the moral connotations of words is the author’s discussion of “the world” as a pejorative. In a theological context, “the world” refers, in the original Greek, to “the present evils of the age.” During the Middle Ages, this came to mean more of a set of evils related to the “wisdom” that is a competing set of values with the “wisdom” of Christianity. As found in such authors as John Bunyan, it came to represent the evils of pride, materialism, and greed. The sins of the successful, as it were, as opposed to the merely fleshly - lust and gluttony, for example. Lewis notes, though, that this was too good of a pejorative to be allowed to mean merely that.

But world was far too useful a pejorative to be abandoned by speakers when they abandoned the theology in presupposes. The attitude of the devout or “elect” to “the world” is after all sometimes very like that of the aesthetic or intellectual elite to the “bourgeois” or “philistines.”

And in this sense, the modern use, from Wordsworth and Arnold through the present, comes to mean, yet again, “that which I do not approve.” And this usage is, again, readily adopted by those with a theological understanding of the word, but now with the practical effect of condemning what they do not like. Perhaps Prohibition is a good example here, where the legitimate dislike of drunkenness was mixed with a particular dislike of the lower classes. (I explore a bit of this in my notes on The Flying Inn.) The meanings mix, and one believes that one is making a purely moral judgment, when in fact one is being a snob.

Lewis also brings this out in relation to the word “gentleman,” as having a “semantic halo” about it. (He believed “life” was also acquiring this halo.) Writers will use the word, and attempt to define it in “purely ethical terms,” while making it “clear at the same moment that their idea of a gentleman involves membership of a social class.” This was never clearer to me than a few months ago while perusing the Vision Forum website (a major player in the Christian Patriarchy movement, and substantially similar to my wife’s experience) while doing research on a future blog post. Phillips uses the word extensively in reference to the kind of man acceptable for his daughters (and other young ladies in his system) to marry. While he tries to define the word as purely moral, it is clear from the rest of the material that he envisions a certain social class. Again, a word is used, not because of its root meaning, but because it adds seeming weight to “what I like.”

The final section that brought this out was the one entitled “semantic salad,” part of the discussion on “life.” The author quotes another as advocating that institutions of higher learning become “fostering centers of responsibility, intelligence, and courage for life.” Lewis asks, why not just use the words “responsibility” and “courage”? The “for life” functions both as a throat-clearing expression and as a weasel word, making the meaning sound more profound without actually being so. Now that I read that, I have found that I see this everywhere, from serious non-fiction even down to Rilla of Ingleside, which I am reading for a book club this month. I hope at least to avoid it myself in the future.

C. S. Lewis is something of a beacon of light for those of us who naturally tend to be skeptics. His realm of thought reaches beyond the bubble of religious terminology, beyond the fads of today or yesterday. I find he encourages me that it is okay to question, okay to realize that much of what is pushed culturally in Evangelical circles these days is based on misunderstanding of the actual words used by the authors of the Scriptures (and that this has been the case throughout recorded history: those wishing to accrue or retain power have twisted words and the Scriptures), and that it is okay to strive to believe at the same time as striving to know. This book in particular has encouraged me to be careful not to use words of moral judgment to mean “what I like” and “what I dislike,” but to make my particular problems with ideas clear and about the ideas themselves, not just my opinion.

This book also helped me look at words differently. As Lewis himself found upon reading in the Middle English, reading the patently unfamiliar exposes our lack of knowledge, which can be then applied to the things we thought we knew before.

One final thought, from the last chapter, which is more of an epilogue. Lewis discusses those words which have ceased to have any actual meaning, but have become as much of an ejaculation - a scream or a grunt - as anything substantive.

Those who have no belief in damnation - and some who have - now damn inanimate objects which would be in any view ineligible for it.

That one just made me laugh.

This book is a great addition to any serious library. The author adds an important layer of historical understanding to words, and nuances which the modern usage often fails to appreciate.


  1. Very much appreciated. I stopped myself from using the yuckiest word in the English language, which, naturally, is "awesome."

  2. It was not Fezzik who said that, it was Inago Montoya.