Misc notes on C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words

I spied this much lesser-known Lewis title in the library stacks the other day and decided to give it a shot. A subtitle could be “In which Jack shows how he is ten times more well-read than you are”. He quotes freely from a hundred different sources, ancient and modern and one gets little sense that he is looking them all up at a reference desk; the pace is too fast. I actually found the book a pretty difficult read late at night as it was mostly technical. Still, it made me think about language in some ways I hadn’t before and for that it was worth it. A few of the passages I marked are probably worth a whole blog post, but I don’t feel up for that now. Instead, here are the passages I found the most interesting with a few comments.

After hearing one chapter of this book when it was still a lecture, a man remarked to me ‘you have made me afraid to say anything at all’. I know what he meant. Prolonged thought ABOUT the words which we oridnarily use to think WITH can produce a momentary aphasia. I think it is to be welcomed. It is well we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.

I feel exactly this way about writing about any topic. At some point you just have to DO IT or you’ll spend forever learning and have no output.

In this next passage, Lewis puts his finger right on one of the key ways in which our language deteriorates.

The greatest cause of verbicide (the murder of a word) is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative – uselesss synonyms for good and for bad. We shall see this happening to the word villain in a later chapter. Rotten, paradoxically has become so completely a synonym for ‘bad’ that we now have to say bad when we mean ‘rotten’.

In its strict theological sense, the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ presents little difficulty. When any agent is empowered by God to do that of which its own kind or nature would never have made it capable, it is said to act super-naturally, above its nature. The story in which Balaam’s ass speaks is a story of the supernatural because speech is not a characteristic of asinine nature. When Isaiah saw the seraphim he saw supernaturally because human eyes are not by their own nature qualified to see such things. Of course examples of the supernatural need not be, like these, spectacular. Whatever a man is enabled to receive or do by divine grace, and not by the exercise of his own nature, is supernatural. Hence, ‘joy, peace and delight’ (of a certain sort) can be described by Hooker as ‘supernatural passions’.

I only wrote this down because I had not considered the fact that it was supernatural that Isaiah could see the seraphim. He wasn’t just in the right place at the right time, but was given something beyond the natural.

Here Lewis pokes a bit of fun at the “nature” poets.

This does not at all mean that the poets are talking nonsense. They are expressing a way of looking at things which must arise when towns become very large and the urban way of life very different from the rural. When this happens most people (not all) feel a sense of relief and restoration on getting out into the country; it is a serious emotion and a recurrent one, a proper theme for high poetry. Philosophically, no doubt, it is superficial to say we have escaped from the works of man to those of Nature when in fact, smoking a man-made pipe and 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, arrowed, ad deepended river which man has made out of the original wide, shallow and 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. The wider range of vision has something to do with it; we are seeing MORE of nature (in a good many senses) than we could in a street.

Everyone starts telling us what the word does NOT mean; a sure proof that it is beginning to mean just that.

This is a great quote and 100% true. I think sometimes we need to go with the flow and stop spending so much time defining our terms. The fewer words we use that don’t need to be defined, the more readily our audience will be able to assimilate it. Scholarly works are another matter of course, but talk to commoners should not be a tour de’ lexicon.

When someone has to prefix something with “true”, then watch out for a twist of meaning.

The tell-tale word is ‘true’. No one describes as ‘true happiness’ the life we all enjoy; it is just ‘happiness’. No one who is being agreeable calls himself our ‘true friend’; freedom and what Hevelians call ‘true freedom’ are almost mutually exclusive. If wit were the current name for the thing Pop describes, then he would have called it simply wit, not true wit. The adjective shows that he is twisting the noun into a sense it never naturally bore.

(Or I would add, does not currently bear.)

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. That is how one’s piano or library is more “liberal”, more characteristic of one’s position as a freeman, that one’s coal-shovel or one’s tools.

This is how Aristotle uses “free” when talking about things.

Some drive-by KJV bashing!

Very ill-grounded ideas about the exclusive importance of the Authorized Version in the English biblical tradition are still widely held.

I found this to be funny.

The old psychologists gave man five ‘outward’, and five ‘inward’, wits (or senses). The five outward wits are what we call the five senses to-day. [The five ‘inward’ wits are “common wit”, “imagination”, “fantasy”, “estimation”, and “memory”] Sometimes they are called simply the senses, and the five inward ones are called simply the wits; hence in Shakespeare ‘my five wits nor my five senses’ (Sonnet CXLI). Which five you lose, or whether you lose all ten, when you are frightened ‘out of your wits’ or ‘out of your senses’, I don’t know; probably the inward ones.

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.

This is very curious. Since Lewis writing this, “simple” has come back around to be largely a GOOD thing.

I never understood the phrase “world without end” in the liturgy either.

By an unusual archaism, the [definition of “world” and being a time period] is preserved in the Prayer Book, where it probably mystifies many church-goers. ‘World without end’ means ‘age without end’, forever. As a boy I thought that ‘before all worlds’ in the Nicene Creed meant ‘before any of the planets’. It really means ‘before all ages’, outside time, ab aeterno.

This is a really excellent short explanation of why the New Testament can be difficult to interpret sometimes. If nothing else, this should be a warning not to read too much into detailed word studies – cross references may be imaginary.

The New Testament writers themselves do not consistently use “kosmos” for the one conception and “aion” for the other. They were not consciously collaborating in the production of a work. They worked far apart in place and time and there was no question of meeting to hammer out an agreed terminology. And none was writing his native language. They wrote the sort of Greek which scholars have called the koine, a deracinated [torn up] and internationalised Greek used all over the Levant for business and government. It was not a barbarous corruption like Pidgin nor a contrived language like Basic. It was more like the sort of English in which two educated Indians who had no mother-tongue in common might converse today; grammatical but unidiomatic, lacking both in nuance and in precesion, cut off from the associations of the nursery, the hearth, and also the library. The koine is the speech of people who are living linguistically from hand to mouth; grabbing at ‘any old world’ which, whoever roughly, will, at a particular moment and for a particular audience, serve the wholly practical purpose they have in view.

You can invent a new word, but the meaning probably won’t stick.

Offered a word which would have supplied a linguistic need, the French, followed by the English, preferred to use it as the name for something which had several names already. Aspiring neologists will draw the moral. Invent a word if you like. It may be adopted. It may even become popular. But don’t reckon on its retaining the sense you gave it and perhaps explained with great care. Don’t reckon on its being given a sense of the slightest utility. Smart little writers pick up words briskly; but only as a jackdaw picks up beads and glass.

To a transcendent entity of this character Plato gave the name eidos (plural eide), and we may follow him. An eidos is obviously very unlike the abstract universal of modern logic. Indeed the whole Platonic position has been judged so hopelessly alien to our mode of thought as to be dismissed with the amusing formula ‘Plato thought abstract nouns were proper names’.

You can find people still using this phrase today to dismiss Plato.

Since the young people in [D.H. Lawrance’s] Sons and Lovers never appear either to hope or fear fertility, we may assume that they have prudently taken measures to be ‘carried by life’ just so far as is convenient and no further.

Modern love seems to require modern contraceptives.

This is a damning pass with regards to “survival of the fittest”. Today, more than ever, the secular world is of two minds about this. We want to embrace evolutionary biology with one hand and outlaw eugenics with the other. We vilify the Nazi’s for their ethnic cleansing even while we set up abortion clinics for the stated purpose of cull out the black population (see essays by the founder of Planned Parenthood). He purport to be for peace while we stir up foreign wars one after another.

Though Plato did not personalize Beauty, the religious note in his language about it is unmistakable. That note becomes even louder in some modern utterances about Life (Biological). It – or she – becomes a goddess. Evolutionary biology is ‘the science of the everlasting transmutations of the Holy Ghost in the world’. Creative Evolution is ‘the religion of the Twentieth Century’. (Shaw) This religion has its great commandment: ‘Life must not cease. That comes before everything.’ This commandment is very significant. An intense momentary conviction that one’s own life must not cease and that its preservation ‘comes before everything’ is a familiar experience; the ordinary name for it is terror. The same conviction, steadily maintained and acted upon over a long period so that it become habitual, is also familiar. The ordinary name for it is cowardice.

In contrast, Lewis argues that love is the natural state and a grasping evolutionary love of ‘life’ something contrived.

Our spontaneous desire is that some lives should be preserved (which means, if we think it out, ‘preserved at the expense of others’). But the proper name for this is love (of our friends, or class, or party, or nation, or species). We wish them to live because we love them: we do not love them because they are specimens of life. In other words, the Shavian [Evolutionary] religion must begin with a conversion, with new motives. We must turn away from all that instinct or experience has taught us to desire and learn to desire, to love ‘before evertyhing’ an invisible, unimaginable object.

This from the end of the book and is some insightful commentary on language as a medium.

Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. Some things it communicates so badly that we never attempt to communicate them by words if any other medium is available.

Another grave limitation of language is that it cannot, like music or gesture, do more than one thing at once. However the words in a great poet’s phrase interinanimate one another and strike the mind as a quasi-instantaneous chord, yet, strictly speaking, each word must be read or heard before the next. Hence, in narrative, the great difficulty of presenting a very complicated change which happens suddenly. If we do justice to the complexity, the time the reader must take over the passage will destroy the feeling of suddenness. If we get in the suddenness we shall not be able to get in the complexity. I am not saying that genius will not find its own ways of palliating this defect in the instrument; only that the instrument is in this way defective.

I am ashamed to remember for how many years, as a boy and a young man, I read nineteenth-century fiction without noticing how often its language differed from ours. I believe it was work on far earlier English that first opened my eyes: for there a man is not so easily deceived into thinking he understands when he does not. In the same way some report that Latin or German first taught them that English aslo has grammar and syntax. There are some things about your own village that you never know until you have been away from it.

This is why I want to learn a new language. I still am largely unaware of English grammar. I use it habitually and intuitively – evaluating what “sounds” right to my ear and my experience and comparative memory. I could maybe dissect a sentence if pressed. I have no idea what a gerund is or what an indirect object is. Seriously.

Finally, some excellent advice to young writers. I’ve heard this exact advice before in different forms, but it’s worth reading again. Good filmmakers know this stuff too.

Avoid all epithets which are merely emotional. It is no use TELLING us that something was “mysterious” or “loathsome” or “awe-inspiring” or “voluptuous”. Do you think your readers will believe you just because say so? You must go quite a different way to work. By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity of your sentences, you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim “how mysterious!” or “loathsome” or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have not need to TELL me how I should react to the flavour.