Archives For Dickens

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.

Navy Nerds

May 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

nerdEvery once in a while, the military has a good idea. Sure, they have a knack for technological breakthroughs in warfare . . . but what about other fields? The NAVY NeRD answers that question in the affirmative.

NeRD stands for Navy eReader Device.

Well-informed readers of Mere Inkling are already aware of the growing intensity of international cyberwarfare. It is no joke, and lives are at stake.

Draconian policies are in place to avoid the contamination of the military computer system by innocently transferred viruses. Since virtually all digital platforms allow for the transfer of data, they are potentially dangerous.

Because of that, even ereaders have been off limits in certain environments. Now, however, someone has thought outside the proverbial box and come up with a solution to that problem.

The United States Navy has devised a novel ereader that comes loaded with 300 titles, but has no ports or wireless connectivity to allow for inadvertent viral transfers.

The selection of books sounds pretty well rounded. Some public domain classics, and a number of contemporary best sellers like A Game of Thrones. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien will be delighted to know the readers also include The Lord of the Rings.

Reading is a productive way to spend one’s free time during a lengthy period at sea. Even for those not prone to opting for it when faced with all the distractions ashore.

During WWII, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a former student who was serving in the Navy, “out of reach of libraries.” It acknowledges the perennial problem of sailors—lack of space for personal property. The letter was written in response to a request from Michael Rayner Thwaites for reading recommendations. Thwaites was an Australian poet and military intelligence officer.

A man who has already your linguistic training might well, I think, begin the Anglo Saxon on his own. You will need E. Wardale Old English Grammar. . . . For texts, the ordinary beginning is first Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer and then his Old English Reader. But you, being a classic might well, after a dip in the Primer go on to King Alfred’s trans. of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae . . .

Whether you can begin O.E. poetry on your own I don’t know. But try getting . . . Beowulf: and with it Clark Hall’s trans. ed. by Wrenn with preface by Tolkien . . . This edition is essential for it is Tolkien’s part of metre wh. is essential. (O.E. verse uses both quality and accent, and your ear is prob. ruined, as mine was, by the false way they teach Latin metre at schools–drastic re-education is required. . . .

As to modern literature. You must not start out to study it ‘as it reveals man’s hesitant advance to the idea of a God-created world’. Don’t you see you are laying down in advance what a phenomenon is to reveal before you have examined the phenomenon? It may reveal that: it may not. You have to find out. I don’t think I can lay down any v. definite course of reading.

All I can point out is that while you are in the navy and out of reach of libraries and new publications, this is the proper time for solid reading through the big (i.e. long) authors, critical works and histories of lit. can come later. Now is the time for Chaucer, Malory, Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Fielding, Richardson, Cowper, Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, Dickens etc etc.

If you usually keep two books of widely different period and type going together (e.g. Faerie Queene & Tom Jones) you won’t get bored. I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas.

All this reading, tho’ dedicated ad Dei gloriam in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

Back to the NeRD

The Navy is making 385 devices at first, with more to follow, with five being sent to each submarine in the Navy to be shared among the crew.

That’s only the start, of course. One would anticipate that even for a military crew (for example, 155 personnel on a Trident sub), a mere five mini-libraries would prove insufficient. (No offense intended; yours truly is a veteran himself.)

BonnevilleAs an American, I find there is something distinctive about British programs. When my family lived in the United Kingdom we enjoyed access to all the offerings of the BBC and the commercial network or two that existed twenty-two years ago.

Returning to the States, we had to become content with viewing the occasional British import, mostly through the auspices of PBS. Since I watch far less television than I used to, I haven’t seen one of the current offerings that’s become quite popular.

Downton Abbey is essentially a soap opera which examines the lives of a noble family, and the myriad servants who attend to their needs. Contrasting their culturally different lifestyles is doubtless quite intriguing.

The reason I’m mentioning a program I’ve never seen, is because I read an interview with one of its co-stars, Hugh Bonneville. His response to the question “Did you make a New Year’s resolution?” was wonderful.

I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book number three. I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul.

C.S. Lewis often speaks about the value of reading the “classics.” One benefit he describes in “The Reading of Old Books,” is that they provide us with a grounded perspective in a rapidly shifting world. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

Lewis apparently enjoyed Dickens. Below are a couple of passages where he refers to him in very good company. In his essay “Sir Walter Scott,” he writes:

. . . there are two things of which I feel certain. One is, that if we do overvalue art, then art itself will be the greatest sufferer; when second things are put first, they are corrupted. The other is that, even if we of all generations have first valued art aright, yet there will certainly be loss as well as gain. We shall lose the fine careless, prodigal artists. For, if not all art, yet some art, flows best from men who treat their work as a kind of play. I at any rate cannot conceive how the exuberance, the elbow-room, the heart-easing quality of Dickens, or Chaucer, or Cervantes, could co-exist with that self-probing literary conscience we find in [Walter Horatio] Pater or Henry James.

And, again, in  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature he praises Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Princess, saying:

From the time of its publication down to about 1914 it was everyone’s poem—the book in which many and many a boy first discovered that he liked poetry; a book which spoke at once, like Homer or Shakespeare or Dickens, to every reader’s imagination.

Ironically, Lewis’ own writings have become classics, to which many of us return over and over. And, even though a month has passed since the traditional day for making New Year resolutions, I can’t think of a better one than planning to read the “complete works” of C.S. Lewis himself.