Learning New Words

March 24, 2021 — 25 Comments

When you encounter an unfamiliar word, do you consider that inconvenient, or exciting?

I encountered a new word today. I read a lot, but rarely do I encounter an unfamiliar word.* I share it with you because of its peculiar meaning. You may want to use it sometime. The drawback is that it is a tad antiquated (thus its unfamiliarity). The word is “Panglossian.”

My “passing” grade in the study of Classical Greek in 1977 suggested the word might mean multi-lingual, since pan means “all,” and glossa means languages or tongues. I was wrong—but for a very odd reason.

Panglossian, you see, doesn’t refer to the literal meaning of its root words. It is based on the qualities of a character created by Voltaire for his satirical novella, Candide. Ironically, Voltaire presumably christened his professor of métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie with this nomen⁑ because of its actual meaning.

The adjective Panglossian, however, has a completely distinct definition. Its difference was signaled for me by the capitalization of the first letter. Fans of Voltaire (among whom I do not count myself, or C.S. Lewis, for that matter) may already know its meaning. a definition, trust me, we shall get to momentarily.

First, I want to share C.S. Lewis’ observation about Voltaire, a Deist who was a savage critic of Christianity. In his autobiography Lewis includes the philosopher in a list of people he considered allies during his own season of atheism.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader.

George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. (Surprised by Joy).

Voltaire’s religious views aside, in Dr. Pangloss he devised a character energized by an incurable optimism. From that characterization, fifty years after Voltaire’s work another writer derived the adjective. If you are like me, knowing a word’s etymology—its origin and history—is intrinsically satisfying.

So, as Merriam Webster says: Pan·​gloss·​ian | pan-ˈglä-sē-ən was first used in 1831 to describe someone or something as being “marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds: excessively optimistic.”

And, since the minting of new words is an ongoing process, it comes as no surprise panglossian has spawned variations.

According to a word research site, “writers have since made several compounds out of his name, such as Panglossic and Panglossism, but the adjective Panglossian is by far the most common and is frequently found even today.”

I encountered the word in an interesting First Things essay entitled “The Gospel According to Dickens.” The author describes Dickens’ hopeful tone and confidence, but declares “Dickens was not Panglossian, however. He expressed scorn for the society that insults and injures the weak and vulnerable.”

While I’m neither panglossic nor inclined in the least to panglossism, I’m glad such people exist. Their naiveté makes this world of ours far more interesting.⁂


* This is true, aside from specific “names” of things like an animal genus (e.g. trochilidae for hummingbirds or urochordate for the beloved sea squirt), or a pharmaceutical (e.g. Unituxin or Tecfidera). The business channel CNBC reports:

“If it seems as if drug names have been getting weirder, it’s because, in some cases, they have. . . . drug names use the letter Q three times as often as words in the English language. For Xs, it’s 16 times as much. Zs take the cake, at more than 18 times the frequency you’d find them in English words. And Ws? You’ll rarely see one in a drug name.” And, shockingly, the cost ranges from $75,000 to $250,000 for developing a single drug brand name.”

⁑ I studied Latin too, way back in 1969-71. The grades for my Latin scholarship were also “satisfactory.”

⁂ No offense intended to any readers of Mere Inkling who count themselves among the excessively optimistic! But, as for me, I’ve yet to be panglossterized.

25 responses to Learning New Words

  1. 

    I wonder if it’s ever been used as a verb, as in “She Panglossed her way through life” or “He put on a show, Panglossing the pitfalls and dangers.” Well, now it has.

  2. 

    The “pan” I recognized
    The lives of words – not always what they seem. Very interesting.
    Pollyanna always seemed a bit too unrealistic to me. Count me in the “hope for the best and prepare for the worst” group.
    (Odd fact. Catherine the Great of Russia was very impressed with Voltaire and exchanged many letters with him. Don’t remember if she managed to lure him to visit Russia though)
    Fun post

    • 

      As I see it, excessive optimism is based on a faulty understanding of human nature. There are numerous exceptions, in terms of humanitarian efforts, but most people are essentially self-focused. Even “good works” on behalf of others are rarely self-sacrificial.

      For example, people praise Bill Gates, etc. for their generosity. It is a good thing, to be sure. However, billionaires could multiply their donations tenfold or a hundredfold without diminishing the quality of their own lives one iota.

      I am simply, as I see it, a realist. There are good people, and bad people (not to mention the 4% who are sociopaths). Sadly, there is no reason at all to think this is not going to change. But to “hope” or pray for a better world, that’s a different matter. I’m optimistic about efforts to make it less bad and violent.

      As for Catherine the Great… I didn’t know about her attraction for Voltaire. She definitely did have an affinity for foreign men though, didn’t she?

  3. 

    I understand Voltaire was caricaturing Leibniz with the character

    • 

      Quite possibly. I’m not a student of philosophy, so that’s unfamiliar terrain for me. A quick online search provided support for your perception. Thanks for the comment.

  4. 
    lilyofthevalley777 March 24, 2021 at 2:59 pm

    Very exciting to read your article. So I take it that this would be an interesting word to use in the word game Scrabble. It may even provoke a conversation or two proving there’s such a word, and this is my proof.

    I do have a wonderful and loving friend who I would consider panglossian. I used to work with her before we retired. She just turned 71 not to long ago. She is excessively optimistic and most enjoyable to be around. Her husband is deaf, but she is not, and they communicate in ASL. Now that’s where words take on a whole new language…..
    Great and informative post Mr. Stroud, and thank you for visiting my site.

    • 

      Optimistic people are usually quite nice to be around–much better than complainers. Love that your friend learned ASL for her husband. My wife became fairly adept with ASL as a SPED teacher. Many schools allow it as a second language option now (for college).

      That would be a great scrabble word! Except you’d be using two of those precious s’s to spell it.

      Speaking of scrabble… C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy used to enjoy playing the game, and they allowed the use of other languages:

      C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

  5. 

    Pangloss was a caricature of Gottfried Leibnitz, who said that the world in which we live is the “best of all possible worlds.” His reason for that statement is that God could change things to make them better, but every bit of evil God allows is part of his plan for a greater good and glory in the largest picture. A world in which all evil and suffering is squelched, according to Leibnitz, would be less good than our world with all its problems. Voltaire, of course, disagreed. He wrote “Candide” and invented Pangloss to express his opinion. J.

    • 

      Thank you for elaborating on the relationship between Voltaire and Leibniz. Neither had very good theology, it appears.

      As for a caricature, it was a nasty one, at that. Voltaire must have really disliked Leibniz since he gave Pangloss syphilis, and then had him expound on how it is necessary in this “best” world.

      Too bad Pangloss/Leibniz/et al didn’t understand the Fall. Attributing evil to God’s desire is, from my perspective, a serious sin (albeit usually one of ignorance).

      • 

        I agree entirely. Although Leibnitz came closer to a traditional Christian view of good and evil, his misstatement of the truth that “all things work together for good”–making evil seem necessary for good to be good–was faulty, and it opened the door to Voltaire’s sarcastic parody. J.

      • 

        As you say. I take great comfort in the promise you cited from Romans 8. But isn’t it unfortunate so few people cite the other part of the verse, “for those who are called according to his purpose.”

  6. 

    Thanks for sharing this word, new to me.

  7. 

    I have always been impressed by the large number of words Shakespeare managed to invent. See, https://www.litcharts.com/blog/shakespeare/words-shakespeare-invented/. While I will never rank w/ CS Lewis, Shakespeare, or Voltaire, I’d like to invent at least one! :)

    • 

      Dear Reverend Stroud and Anna,

      I have yet to mint any new words, but have so far coined half a dozen neologisms such as “Quotation Fallacy”, “Quotation Mutation”, “Motivational Quotation Industry”, “Quotational Intelligence”, “Appeal to Misquotation” and “Viral Falsity”.

      • 

        Those are all quite evocative phrases. Your creative impulses are certainly on track in this arena!

      • 

        Dear Reverend Stroud,

        Thank you for your compliment. The last neologism originates from my latest and recently expanded post entitled “Misquotation Pandemic and Disinformation Polemic: Mind Pollution by Viral Falsity“.

        The post contains twelve sections plus a detailed annotated gallery accessible from a navigational menu. I am very keen and curious to know what you think or make of this particular post regarding the increasingly pressing issues that many of us are facing, worsened all the more by mental pitfalls (or even mental health), social media, digital globalization, populism, illiberal democracy, and other behavioural and sociopolitical factors.

    • 

      Today could be the day! And your excellent blog could be just the place to introduce it to the world!

      As the page you linked to suggests, we can follow Shakespeare’s simple example by altering existing words. “Conjoining two words; Changing verbs into adjectives; Changing nouns into verbs; Adding prefixes to words; Adding suffixes to words”

      Using this easy method you could coin multiple words in a single session. Now, getting others to use them would probably be a bit more challenging, or effortnecessitating.

  8. 

    Hi Rob,

    Fun stuff. New words. Heres a fun one: Borborygmi I think that’s right. It is the sound that your intestines make when water and fluid are moving. Love picking up words.

    Thanks,

    Gary

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