Does it bother you to encounter an unfamiliar word when you are reading? How about in conversation?
I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain.
I can illustrate that final comment—welcoming words that define hard to describe nuances—with a couple of examples. Angst and ephemeral were the first two such words that came to my mind just now, and momentarily I will offer passages in which C.S. Lewis uses each of them.
One is “angst.” It’s more than worry. It’s darker than anxiety. It conveys in many cases an air of foreboding. We can thank the Germans for angst (the word, not the dread itself).
Another too seldom used word would be “ephemeral.” In essence it means temporary or transitory. But it often conveys a sense of loss, of the passing of something before its due time. It suggests the dissolution of something we would wish to examine in greater detail. Ephemeral suggests something far more emotionally weighty than its original Greek, which translates into “lasting only a day.”
Narrowly defined or focused words, are like a sort of communication shorthand. They are useful for getting messages across more rapidly, and with greater accuracy. For example, it would be of little value for one Inuit to describe a location to another by saying it was covered with “snow.” If they intend to travel there, it would be beneficial to know in advance what kind of snow to anticipate.
Due to this unforgiving environment, the Inuktitut (the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the Canadian arctic) have a score of different words referring to snow and ice. This fascinating article addresses the subject and illustrates how this word group is supplemented by additional words which, when used in a winter context, mean a particular type of snow.
In Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks.
In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an igloo is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.
While the native peoples of the Arctic possess many words for atmospheric water vapor that has been frozen into ice crystals, there are not quite one hundred, as some have parodied.
On the other end of the geographic spectrum, there are many human beings who will never in their entire lives see snow. Think non-mountainous equatorial settings that escaped even the Ice Age. For them, a single word is probably sufficient for the theoretically existent snow, and only one word required for the precious commodity ice, which is most frequently encountered in the shape of a cube.
I am not a skier, so I claim no philological expertise on snow slang where I live in Washington State. The snow we enjoy near Hood Canal comes and goes in a couple of days, several times each winter. Perfect for sledding or building snowpeople with the grandkids. Yet even here we readily recognize several types of snow. Wet snow makes deadly spheres for snowball wars. Powder is less suitable as a construction material, but it offers a slippery track for racing downhill sledding. Packed snow transforms into ice, and makes driving hazardous. Slush is, well . . . slushy.
Not All Words are Worthy of Inclusion
One simple way to expand our vocabulary is by subscribing to a “Word of the Day” service. More often than not, I already know the day’s offering, but occasionally it’s pleasant to be reminded of such things.
Then there are those words that are so peculiar or restrictive that we can’t consciously conceive of using them. Such was a word I received this week: “appurtenance.” I applaud you if you know it. I commiserate with your friends if you employ it.
One of appurtenance’s synonyms is “paraphernalia.” That was a fine word in and of itself, until it because too strongly associated with illegal narcotics. I guess if I elect not to use “appurtenance,” and regard “paraphernalia” as contaminated, I’ll simply need to retreat to the fallback word of my youth, “stuff.”
Today’s word was even less useful. “Sternutation” is the involuntary expulsion of air through the nose. Might be good for a bunch of junior high school boys, but I don’t think I’ll file it away for my next novel.
C.S. Lewis’ Use of Precise Prose
The best, and most gratifying way to expand our vocabularies is by reading. I never resent reading a great book or stimulating essay that sends me to my dictionary.
As I promised, I am including examples of Lewis’ use of the words I had randomly selected to illustrate my point above. As a bonus, I’m including two examples of ephemeral, reflecting both senses of the word’s meaning.
From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Sir Walter Scott” which appears in Selected Literary Essays:
For the whole of that Gurnal, indeed, we might borrow a title from an author whom Scott himself fully appreciated, and call it ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The sense, I presume, is obvious enough. We see it, first and foremost, in his cool and moderate estimate of his own literary powers; a modesty almost (one would have thought) impossible in one whose reputation had filled Europe and been blown up until he was put above Goethe and almost equalled with Shakespeare. Yet it is not mere self-depreciation.
Though never deceived about his weaknesses, he knows his real strength too; the “hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition.” He recognizes, in his own way, the quality of what a more pretentious writer would call “inspiration:”—“I shall get warm as I work”— the morning, fresh from the labours of subconscious artistry, is musis amica. We see it also in his unchanging, cheerfully unemphatic, contempt for ‘the imaginary consequence of literary triflers’ and the ‘affectations of literature . . .”
But we should do Scott little service with some modern critics by insisting exclusively on his sense; for there is a widespread opinion that genius is never free from neurosis, and unless we can find Angst in an author’s soul he will hardly be taken seriously. Well, if we demand Angst, Scott can supply that, too. He confesses to “idle fears, gloomy thoughts” (1826); to “A thick throbbing at my heart . . . fancies thronging on me . . . a disposition . . . to think on things melancholy and horrible.” (1827).
Ephemeral as brief, in a 1959 letter where Lewis rejects the proposed title for one of his volumes:
Dear Mac, Thanks for your letter of the 18th. I don’t care for Dangers of Belief. I would like The World’s Last Night and other Essays. The and other essays would appear on the title page only—not on spine, back, or jacket. For No. IV I should prefer Good Work and Good Works. As soon as I can get it typed I shall send you a long correction for Lilies that Fester. . . .
It will replace the bit which in the Twentieth Century article begins ‘About Culture as’ (para 3, p 332) and ends ‘to extraneous ends,’ (para 2, l. 3, p. 334). This is necessary because E. M. Forster has said in print that he really meant the alternative ‘b’ which I offered him in a footnote to p 333.113.
Most of the passage I want to alter is therefore now irrelevant. And anyway I think that what I want to substitute for it is better and of less ephemeral interest. O.K.?
In the final volume of his space (cosmic) trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers to celestial spiritual forces. Some of them are associated with stars and planets. The Oyéresu (unfallen angelic rulers) who serve God, their Creator. If you are unfamiliar with the book, don’t try to understand the meaning of what follows. Simply allow the power of Lewis’ narrative to paint an imposing scene.
[The freezing temperature evoked a progression of thoughts]: of stiff grass, hen roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. . . .
Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.
It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.
It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised.
Reading Lewis is an education in many things. Many years after his death he continues to teach receptive minds about writing, creativity, communication, rational thinking, Christian living, and so very much more.
If you are curious about an author who actually contributed to C.S. Lewis’ own vocabulary, check out this column.