True philology

July 25, 2007

Studies in Words (1960)
C. S. Lewis (Canto, 1996)
350 pp. First reading.

In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis said that a good reader is one who is attentive to the tone and nuanced meanings of the words he reads. Studies in Words demonstrates that he himself was a good reader.

It is in some ways a curious book. Lewis chooses a set of words and phrases with particularly rich semantic histories, and traces their usage over the centuries. His words are, for the most part, quite ordinary, and there is a reason for this: when reading old books the really difficult words are the ones we think we know, for we will often not pause to wonder about them.

On a journey like this, Lewis is an ideal guide. He moves lightly, and with humbling ease, through the length and breadth of Western literature. I’m looking at a single page, for instance, that moves from Lucretius to Virgil to Shakespeare (both Othello and The Tempest) to Milton to Swift to Sterne.

These studies in words are interesting in their own right, but I found myself stepping back from the contents of the book and taking an interest in the fact of the book itself. Why did Lewis write it? He is advancing no argument, and telling no story. If I may put it this way, the book does not seem to require an audience. It feels like the fruit of a private passion; it is what happens when a man becomes absorbed in what he loves. Lewis loved words, and here he fondly gathers them up, turns them this way and that, and admires their beauty and complexity. Lewis was a true philologist.

The words he discusses are, as I said, very common: nature, sad, wit, free, sense (with sentence, sensibility, and sensible), simple, conscience and conscious, world, life, and finally the phrase “I dare say”. Each of these has a dominant meaning today, but each also has a constellation of variant meanings. We may speak of “a man of wit”, meaning a humorous man, but also of “having my wits about me”, meaning being alert and mentally agile. Or we may speak of something as “natural” when we mean that it occurs in nature (“The flowering of plants is natural.”), but “natural” may also mean something fitting or appropriate, even if in fact counterexamples exist (“It is natural for a mother to love her child.”) The danger for the reader of old books is that the meaning that was dominant for the writer and his contemporaries may no longer be the dominant meaning for us, and if we miss that fact we misread.

In the final chapter, entitled “At the Fringe of Language”, Lewis considers the phenomenon of words which were at one time full of imaginative or conceptual content but have since become the equivalent of inarticulate sounds, expressing an emotion and not much more. Words which suffer this fate tend to be terms of abuse and complaint: “damn” was once a technical theological term, now it is an ejaculation; to call someone a “swine” once meant something specific, now it conveys only dislike. (Incidentally, the process can also happen the other way, when inarticulate sounds acquire standard spellings and appear in dictionaries. Examples would be “tut-tut”, or “heigh-ho”. Such words, however, if they do manage to creep into the fringe of language, rarely penetrate any further into the center.) This migration out of language occurs when the emotional connotations of a word are permitted to overwhelm its sense, and Lewis closes with some choice words about the need to use words responsibly and judiciously. He has certainly done his part.

[Words turning sour]
For innocent, simple, silly, ingenuous, and Greek euethes, all illustrate the same thing — the remarkable tendency of adjectives which originally imputed great goodness, to become terms of disparagement. Give a good quality a name and that name will soon be the name of a defect. Pious and respectable are among the comparatively modern casualties, and sanctimonious was once a term of praise.

2 Responses to “True philology”

  1. Paul Says:

    I don’t know that there’s much point commenting on a blog post from July 2007, but I just wanted to mention that Christopher Derrick, one of Lewis’s students, did something a little bit similar (far less philological) in “Words and the Word: Notes on our Catholic vocabulary” (1987).

  2. cburrell Says:

    There’s no statute of limitations on these posts, Paul, and comments are always welcome.

    I’ve not heard of that book before, and I’ll add it to my “Interesting Books” list. Your mentioning it reminds me of a book by Kathleen Norris called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I have not read it.

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