Archives For Voltaire

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.