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.