C.S. Lewis and the History of Words

Like many of you, I love words. Like C.S. Lewis, I recognize the value of understanding each word’s etymology—its origin and history.

That’s why I was hooked right from the beginning by a short essay on “Language and the Bible” that I read in a magazine to which I subscribe. Dr. Mark Ward’s column goes by the heading Word Nerd. (Yes, I recognize the title is dweebish, but bear with me, his insights are worthwhile).

Word histories are for precocious nine-year-old homeschoolers who enjoy presenting irrelevant factoids to bemused adults. But word histories are history, and they come with all the drama that human life does.

You don’t have to be a geek to have fun with etymologies. Right here at Mere Inkling we enjoyed exploring Viking words that found their way into English. We also discussed the importance of using the etymological meanings of one’s name when determining how that name is properly rendered in the Elvish tongues of Middle Earth.

Etymology is serious business to those of us who study history and, especially, theology. The article I just cited is available online in a delightful video presentation. I’ll link to it below, for those interested in language as it relates to the Bible. Yet, even for those without these theological or historical interests, learning the life story of words can be fascinating, and even inspiring.

Listen to C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on the importance of philology, the broader study of languages which incorporates etymology.

I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion.

If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended.

What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his. If we call this tout court “reading” the old poet, we are deceiving ourselves. If we reject as “mere philology” every attempt to restore for us his real poem, we are safeguarding the deceit.

Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste. (Studies in Words)

Exciting News for Word Lovers

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides an unrivaled treasure-trove of information about the world’s most influential language. And—it is currently being expanded. The second edition, published in 1989, consists of twenty volumes (21,728 pages). The new edition will, of course, eclipse that.

Best of all, will be the OED’s deeper exploration of each word’s etymology. As they say in the already-released Preface to the Third Edition of the OED:

The revision of the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological component is a substantial undertaking. In the First Edition many entries whose origin was taken to be self-evident (typically native English formations) were not provided with etymologies.

In the revised material each entry has a formal etymology. . . . the most significant changes relate to the analytical content of the revised etymologies, which for the most part update text which appeared in the First Edition of the Dictionary, and therefore represented the state of scholarly knowledge approximately one hundred years ago.

Your reward for reading this far: At the beginning of this post, I quoted from the Bible Study Magazine article that inspired it. This is a link to the article itself . . . but I strongly recommend you follow this link to the video version by the author, which I mentioned earlier.

A Bonus Surprise from C.S. Lewis

I suspect most fans of C.S. Lewis would imagine him to be very fastidious, even punctilious, about spelling. The following letter will prove otherwise.

Lewis recognized the purpose of language is to communicate, and although there are valid reasons to investigate their etymologies, such pursuits need not muddy the conversation, so to speak. This letter was published on New Year’s Day in 1960 in the London Times Educational Supplement. It was written in response to a contemporary debate about “spelling reform.”

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography.

Most men of my age [i.e. officers serving during WWI] remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly.

A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

So, console yourself today with the knowledge that C.S. Lewis would not judge you for accidentally writing “sieze,” or using personal shorthand like “tho” or “thru.” Lewis respected the value of etymology, but he also understood quite well its proper place.

32 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the History of Words

    1. Thanks. I visited your gravatar, since you don’t list a blog of your own. The beginning make me feel especially encouraged by your comment: “I write and edit for money. But I read for pure pleasure.”

      May God bless your vocation and afford you much time for your reading avocation!

  1. Fascinating post, Rob. I always wonder about the Genesis passage where Adam is directed to name the animals, even as he was named by God. Why is this mentioned at all? Language-making, word-smithing: something divine about it when we do it right.

    1. Wonderful insight, Dora. People have, intuitively I believe, recognized the “power” of names. They’re not simply arbitrary.

      I love the way biblical names were chosen expressly for their meaning. That’s how we named our own children. Even if there is no extraordinary benefit in particular names, I think some extreme examples illustrate clearly how we can either bless or curse our children by the names we choose for them.

      1. I try to be tolerant of misspellings, and occasionally simply use the occasion of making a “correction” (especially with my grandkids) as a teaching moment. They are actually very receptive to this, since they desire to do things well.

        Coincidentally, just today (when four were over for piano lessons) we were discussing the spelling of names, especially those that have fairly common variants.

      2. Ah… the spelling of names with common variants. That’s an interesting topic! It’s difficult to argue with someone that the name on their birth certificate is spelt wrong…

      1. Sarada Gray

        That I can agree with. I guess Lewis might have thought again if he’d seen some of the horrific spelling on Facebook

      2. Quite possibly. I suspect he would have also distinguished between intentional abuses of spelling and accidental ones that still successfully communicated their intended message.

        And, we can’t forget that Lewis lived at a time without spell check systems. Back then, only a minority of us kept a dictionary on our desk to confirm or rectify our spelling of uncertain words.

  2. “If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended.”
    You said this so well. It should be applied to all written literature/pieces as well as to movies and art. Once people could look at things “in context of the times” and not be so darn offended/critical of a piece. It takes a willingness to understand and not demand a certain train of thought in one direction maybe – perhaps not in style currently.
    Spelling is a pain for me. Formal writing – it should be correct as accepted, but everyday? If the reader can understand the meaning of the work, spelling isn’t that critical . Some get so upset when they get misspelled words in emails, blogs, notes…like it really matters.. the purpose to communicate ideas should be what it important. (But kids? Yeah, they should learn how to spell correctly – just as the Old Masters of art and music insist on learning the basics correctly before exploring creatively.)
    Naming of the animals. great insight in that comment.
    I do wonder if we aren’t losing history and glimpses of precious societies with the old Christmas carols and hymns being played less or “updated”. Those words reflected the times as much as the faith?
    One of your most interesting and though provoking posts

    1. I wish I could take credit for that quotation, but it come from Lewis’ pen.

      You are so very right about the absurd practice of applying contemporary values (or fads) to historic documents. Leads to tearing down statues and burning books.

      I have empathy for your spelling challenge. It’s one of the few things I seem to have a natural knack for. (I should have written “for which I have a knack.”) :)

      That’s not to say I don’t make spelling mistakes. And I certainly commit my share of typos. But, I think I had some good spelling teachers early on… and studying Latin may have helped a bit as well.

  3. This reminds me of a passage in a book by Alison Uttley, “A Traveller in Time” in which the main character meets an Elizabethan lady who spells her name three different ways depending on mood, because she can, and because spelling hasn’t been standardized.

    If spelynge thinges in ryche and varied waies was guid enuf for Chaucer, it’s guid enuf for me.

    Regarding the changing meanings of words: King James I said of St Paul’s Cathedral that it was awful and artificial— by which he meant awesome and full of artifice!

    1. I like the idea of varying your name. A good number of folks can do that via nicknames. I’m Robert for legal documents and people who don’t know me. I’m Rob to family and friends. And I’m Bob to people who don’t know me but want to pretend a familiarity. (I’ve never gone by Bob.)

      Didn’t know that King James quote. Its actual meaning is great.

      Yes, Chosser provides a great example for us.

  4. Precocious presumptuous nine-year-olds, indeed. :D I do think a standard is necessary; I suspect critics would say, if said standard were removed, that accurate spellings are an unfair way to favor some over others.

    1. I have shifting expectations regarding spelling. I’m quite tolerant with handwritten mistakes (i.e. without access to spelling tools)… and a bit more critical with things composed on computers (with virtually ubiquitous spell checks).

      I’m least gracious toward spelling errors in official documents (e.g. graduate school application forms).

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