Archives For Gibbon

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.

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

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. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.