Archives For Words

For the Love of Words

November 23, 2021 — 17 Comments

Most writers, including the majority of bloggers, share a common affection. We love words, don’t we?

That love extends beyond mere fondness. We can find ourselves in a state of genuine wonder as we ponder definitions, etymologies (evolutions through diverse languages), and phonesthetics (how they sound). As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you – almost apart from their meaning – a thrill like music?”

This is one aspect of a great article in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness.* In “For the Love of Words,” editor Roy Askins uses C.S. Lewis’ classic The Four Loves to explore the relationship we have with words. He does so from a Christian perspective shared by the Oxford don.

Words shape us in profound ways. God formed creation and continues to sustain it by the Word of His mouth. . . . Words, then, are not incidental to our lives, but form a central part and core of our identity as God’s people. It’s certainly appropriate for us to talk about “loving words.”

The very word for a lover of words – logophile – combines the Greek logos (word) with philia, which Lewis deems priceless, like “that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book.”

[Coincidentally, I have an article about ministry to those who are mourning in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness, as well. I assure you, however, that’s not why I’m citing “For the Love of Words.”] Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well acquainted with my personal fascination with words and wordplay.

Many of you share this predilection. C.S. Lewis describes us in Studies in Words.

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.

Literature, Lewis argues, is not simply the sum of its words. It involves the history of the words, their complex shades of meaning, and even what those very words meant to their original writers.

The Uniquely Christian Perspective

God pours out his gifts of writing quite broadly. Countless styluses, quills and pens have been wielded by talented pagans and atheists over the centuries.

Still, as Askins’ article alludes, Christians have a unique connection to words. Not only did God speak all creation into existence through his Word, but that Logos, that Word became incarnate and suffered an innocent death so that humanity might be redeemed. Askins concludes his article with a joyful truth.

When we seek to love words, then, we do not seek to love them as words in themselves. This danger we editors and writers must mark and avoid. No, we love words because in them and by them, we hear of and share God’s love for us in Christ. He alone makes words holy and precious; He alone makes words worth loving.

I love these closing words. And I strongly believe C.S. Lewis would too.


* The Lutheran Witness is the magazine of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Create a Word Today

October 26, 2021 — 18 Comments

What could possibly be more fun than making up a witty new word?

Well, to be honest, lots of things. But inventing words is still an enjoyable creative exercise. I made up several in less than an hour this evening, while half-watching an old movie. A few may be lame, but I hope you will discover one or two you enjoy.

I’ve touched on the subject of inventing words in the past. But this approach involves a different process.

This article from The Guardian asks, “English speakers already have over a million words at our disposal – so why are we adding 1,000 new ones a year to the lexicon?” That’s certainly a fair question. However, it doesn’t pertain to my thoughts here. I’m not attempting to birth any neologisms. These are simply humorous tweaks to existing words. A form of wordplay.

I got the idea when I read a short article, “The Best Made Up Words Ever,” by Bill Bouldin.* He admits to including a number of words from an online site I won’t name here (due to its preponderance of vulgar terms). While Bouldin doesn’t indicate which examples are his own contributions, and which are reproduced, I found a couple of the words quite entertaining.

The first of these reminded me of many group meetings where we consider all sorts of opportunities and possibilities.
Blamestorming – The act of attempting to identify the person who is most at fault for a plan’s failure.

As a pastor I couldn’t resist modifying this gem.
Sinergy – When performing two bad acts make you feel as guilty as if you had committed three.

This one struck home since it’s a play on one of the words in the title of the Narnian classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Chairdrobe – A chair on which one piles clothes that belong in the closet. Not to be confused with a floordrobe.

The final example will resonate with everyone who enjoys reading and writing.
“Illiteration – The mistaken impression that you know more about rhetorical devices than you really do.

At the risk of revealing myself to be an illiterator, I’ve included below some of the words I conjured up during an idle hour. I don’t claim any are masterpieces, but you may find one or two that bring a smile to your face. And, who doesn’t need an extra smile during these trying times?

My Initial Experiment

Caution: Before proceeding, keep in mind these are not real words. As genuine and utilitarian as they may appear, I advise you not to use them in conversation or composition. They are offered by Mere Inkling purely for entertainment purposes. Feel free to add some of your own in a comment.

Miscellaneous Vocabulary

Subbatical: the period when some temp like you is hired to fill in for some privileged person who has a job that has sent him or her off for an extended paid vacation.

Dippididude: Confused men who use hair gel designed for young girls and women.

Cemetarry: The unwillingness of some people to ponder the reality of their own mortality.

Mannekin: A boring, sedentary relative, who rarely rises from the couch.

Candlelablouse: The name for candlesticks with multiple arms in the homes of prudes.

Carnivirus: Individuals who strive to draw blood from those who view the coronavirus and its implications differently than they do.

Brigadeer: A domineering deer who tries to order all the other members of its herd around (antlers optional).

Altruistick: Actions that appear on the surface to be selfless, but include a hidden agenda.

Monumentill: Descriptor for someone of little worth who builds a significant reputation with the sole purpose of lining their pockets.

Blasphemee: An individual’s personal inability to consistently observe the Second Commandment.

Concupiscents: Hollywood’s obsession with including graphic sexual themes in all of their productions, resulting in the selling of their souls for pennies on the dollar.

Cathedroll: A large church led by a senior minister given to quaint and unintentionally comic humor.

Cadaversary, pl., cadaversaries: A member of the endless hordes of the undead during a zombie apocalypse.

Writing Vocabulary

Literasee: The capacity of one’s imagination to visualize what you are reading.

Bloggrr: An essentially angry person, given to writing unbridled tirades on various digital formats.

Gerdprocessing: When whatever you are typing just doesn’t work, and causes you severe heartburn instead.

Manuskipped: The sad condition when the article or book into which you poured your blood, sweat and tears has been tossed into a slush pile to lie forgotten.

Editteen: The maturity level of the editor who did not recognize the merits of your manuscript and rejected it without comment.

Subliminil: When the word you are reading or writing possesses no hidden or subconscious message.

Proofreaper: Someone you invited to read your manuscript for misspellings who advises you to delete entire sections of your precious creation.

Skulldigory: Misbehavior by the English professor, Digory Kirke, who, as a child, introduced evil into Narnia.

I will close now with two words that cat-lovers may find objectionable. If you are a devoted feline-fancier, you are advised to cease reading now.

Lucifur: The anonymous leader of that faction of felines devoted to serving evil.

Purrification: The activity of forgiveness and restoration that occurs when any cat makes a sincere confession of its sins.


* This columnist cites various words from the Bouldin’s piece, and others from a book entitled The Emotionary: a Dictionary of Words That Don’t Exist for Feelings That Do.

Delicious Words

August 19, 2021 — 15 Comments

Have you ever wondered what colors people see when they read what you write? If so, you are not (necessarily) insane. And we’re not talking about coloring your fonts to evoke certain responses.

The fact is, some people honestly do see colors when they read – or hear – particular words.

Perhaps even more oddly, some people actually taste specific words. And the flavor(s) they sense are not necessarily related in any reasonable way. For example, we might think that if someone heard the word “orange,” or saw an orange color, that some psychological trick might cause them to think they can taste an orange citrus flavor. But that’s not how it works. There may not be any fathomable connection at all.

This phenomena is called “synesthesia.” Healthline describes synesthesia as “a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses.” Although they are rare, “synesthetes” are not unique.

A study entitled “Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words?” alleges the condition is experienced by 2% to 4% of the population.

While a proven genetic basis for synesthesia remains elusive, the phenomenon tends to run in families, as ∼40% of synesthetes report a first-degree relative with the condition. Pedigree analyses of synesthesia suggest high transmissibility from parent to offspring . . .

I have a confession to make. Through the years I’ve met a handful of people who told me they could taste colors, or the like. They were describing to me their sincere experiences of synesthesia. Unfortunately, since I’d never read about the validity of the phenomenon, I dismissed it. I assumed that the more playful of the advocates were trying to trick me. And I attributed the other cases to people tricking themselves, due to odd imaginations or to gullibility manipulated by the power of suggestion.

Mea culpa. The awkwardness was my fault. I am sorry for any hurt I may have caused. I, of all people, should have accepted their testimony. You see, for many years I was stunned that people voluntarily ate cilantro. To me, the herb tastes like soap – exactly like picking up a bar of soap and taking a big bite. Everyone laughed and me. But one day I met someone whose eyes widened before they declared “me too!”

Britannica explains the problem: ‘for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves.” The frequency of this “genetic quirk” varies by ethnicity. Trust me, if you knew what it tastes like to “us,” you would never force the unpalatable cleanser on anyone but your worst enemy.

You see, because of my dismissal of their revelation, I could very well have caused some people to consider themselves defective, or discourage them from being open in their lives after that time. Healthline describes it this way:

On the other hand, some synesthetes feel that their condition isolates them from others. They may have trouble explaining their sensory experiences because they are very different. Finding communities of other synesthetes online may help ease this feeling of isolation.

Fortunately, on the other hand, “many people seem to enjoy perceiving the world in a different way than the general population.” There are even artistic efforts which attempt to replicate the experience of these unique individuals.

For a simple guide to the numerous types of synesthesia experienced by your fellow human beings (which may or may not parallel animal phenomena), check out this article.

There is a short scene from the film Ratatouille that creatively illustrates the experience of the synesthete, who is, in this case, Remy the rat. (We’ll link to it at the end of the post.)

What about the Inklings?

I don’t believe any member of the Inklings experienced synesthesia. It is possible, of course.

Nevertheless, there are echoes of synesthesia in their works. Consider for a moment the following description of Lewis’ work as a literary critic in C.S. Lewis at Poet’s Corner.

What I want to call attention to here is yet another example of what one might call Lewis’s narrative synaesthesia. . . . I am not arguing that this kind of movement between genres is unique to Lewis – far from it, I think we all do it to some extent, if only in our imaginations rather than on paper. . . .

[Lewis] is a writer whose perceptions just jostle against each other, and are so interconnected that it is almost impossible to separate one strand from the next. These are characteristics more common in the poet than the critic, and not for nothing did Lewis see himself as primarily a poet.

C.S. Lewis could also skillfully energize his fiction with synesthetic elements. An excellent example is found in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. An article on Encyclopedia.com describes it in the following way.

As they sail nearer to Aslan’s country, references to Christ and our heavenly home accumulate quickly. Reepicheep discovers that the water is sweet! Caspian describes the phenomenon with synesthesia, using the terms of one sense experience to describe another: “It – it’s like light more than anything else.”

In the novel itself we see Reepicheep being pulled from the sea, after falling overboard.

“Sweet!” he cheeped. . . . “I tell you the water’s sweet,” said the Mouse. “Sweet, fresh. It isn’t salt.” For a moment no one quite took in the importance of this. But then Reepicheep once more repeated the old prophecy:

Where the waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
There is the utter East.

Then at last everyone understood. “Let me have a bucket, Rynelf,” said Drinian [the ship’s captain]. It was handed him and he lowered it and up it came again. The water shone in it like glass.

“Perhaps your Majesty would like to taste it first?” said Drinian to Caspian. The King took the bucket in both hands, raised it to his lips, sipped, then drank deeply and raised his head. His face was changed. Not only his eyes but everything about him seemed to be brighter. “Yes,” he said, “it is sweet. That’s real water, that. I’m not sure that it isn’t going to kill me. But it is the death I would have chosen . . .”

“What do you mean?” asked Edmund.

“It – it’s like light more than anything else,” said Caspian.

“That is what it is,” said Reepicheep. “Drinkable light. We must be very near the end of the world now.”

There was a moment’s silence and then Lucy knelt down on the deck and drank from the bucket. “It’s the loveliest thing I have ever tasted,” she said with a kind of gasp. “But oh – it’s strong. We shan’t need to eat anything now.” And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were all silent. They felt almost too well and strong to bear it, and presently they began to notice another result.

As I have said before, there had been too much light ever since they left the island of Ramandu – the sun too large (though not too hot), the sea too bright, the air too shining. Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking.

They could see more light than they had ever seen before. And the deck and the sail and their own faces and bodies became brighter and brighter and every rope shone. And the next morning, when the sun rose, now five or six times its old size, they stared hard into it and could see the very feathers of the birds that came flying from it.

Synesthetic Rodents

The dashing Reepicheep is not the only cute little rodent who experiences reality synesthetically. That should come as no surprise, since Rodentia such as mice like our hero, Remy the rat chef and their cousins like beavers and porcupines constitute about 40% of all mammal species. God alone knows how many rabbits, prairie dogs and pikas share these sensory delights.

The aforementioned scene from Ratatouille offers a “taste” of what life is like for a synesthete. Enjoy.

Mark Twain wrote some entertaining travelogues about his overseas travel. In A Tramp Abroad, he relates a conversation he and a friend had with an American who had been studying veterinary medicine in Germany. The expatriate complains about how long his studies have taken – nearly two years – and proclaims how good it is to hear his native tongue.

The student’s most humorous words relate to his impression of the German language. It’s unusual in its nineteenth century phrasing. However, he does note one rather common opinion in his earthy observation.

“I spotted you for my kind [fellow Americans] the minute I heard your clack. . . .” The young fellow hooked his arm into the Reverend’s, now, with the confiding and grateful air of a waif who has been longing for a friend, and a sympathetic ear, and a chance to lisp once more the

sweet accents of the mother tongue, — and then he limbered up the muscles of his mouth and turned himself loose, — and with such a relish!

Some of his words were not Sunday-school words, so I am obliged to put blanks where they occur. . . . “when I heard you fellows gassing away in the good old American language, I’m – if it wasn’t all I could do to keep from hugging you! My tongue’s all warped with trying to curl it around these forsaken wind-galled nine-jointed, German words here; now I tell you it’s awful good to lay it over a Christian word once more and kind of let the old taste soak in. . . .

“I’m learning to be a horse-doctor! I like that part of it, you know, but ____ these people, they won’t learn a fellow in his own language, they make him learn in German; so before I could tackle the horse-doctoring I had to tackle this miserable language.”

And, as if mastering German wasn’t difficult enough in itself, he continues:

“First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts, but I don’t mind it now. I’ve got it where the hair’s short, I think; and dontchuknow, they made me learn Latin, too. Now between you and me, I wouldn’t give a ____ for all the Latin that was ever jabbered; and the first thing I calculate to do when I get through, is to just sit down and forget it. ’Twon’t take me long . . .”

I don’t intend to offend Germans for the challenge their language poses to some. (In fact, one set of my grand-parents named Vonderohe originally came from Pomerania.) But the nature of agglutinative languages is so alien to most of us that the very length of the glued-together words becomes daunting.

Since I’m not a linguist, I had to research to discover as I wrote this post that German is not a truly agglutinative language. It merely uses agglutination. Apparently, the distinction involves distinctions with which most non-linguists need not concern themselves. We can be satisfied with the simplified definition provided by Glottopedia.org – “Agglutinating language is a language which has a morphological system in which words as a rule are polymorphemic and where each morpheme corresponds to a single lexical meaning.”

In truth, it’s quite logical to make new words by stringing them together. Most English compound words are a combination of two elements. Longer Germanic words seem more common. Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, for example, sounds “nine-jointed,” but is actually only two words, meaning motor vehicle liability insurance.

C.S. Lewis and the German Language

C.S. Lewis was multilingual, and studied German while relatively young. He and his wife used every language as a source when playing Scrabble.

Nevertheless, Lewis was quite modest about his grasp of German. In 1954, while thanking a German professor for the offer of a philosophy book he had written, Lewis wrote,

I look forward to reading the book (when the translation arrives! My German is wretched, and what there is of it belongs chiefly to the libretto of the Ring and Grimm’s Märchen – works whose style and vocabulary you very possibly do not closely follow).

The following year Lewis wrote once again to Helmut Kuhn. This time it was to thank him for a review Lewis’ works. Lewis said, “it certainly seems to me that your grasp of the whole situation in which I have written and of the relation of my ideas both to it and to each other, goes far beyond any criticism I have yet had.” Before he makes that noteworthy statement, Lewis makes a playful comment relating to the presumed dignity implicit in the German language itself.

To be written about in the German language is, for an Englishman, a grave temptation to spiritual pride. The sentences are so massive and the words so long that, even if the content were less flattering than it is in your article, the subject can hardly resist feeling that he must be a much weightier phenomenon than he had ever supposed!

Eucestoda Words: Well Worth a Postscript

Germans are an accomplished, literate people who take pride in their language. They have gone so far as to coin a word that specifically identifies these sometimes lengthy compound words. Germans call them bandwurmwörter, which literally means “tapeworm words.” (Mark Twain would have delighted in knowing that.)

Friedrich Akademie, an education website, devotes a page on their website to “Beautiful German Tapeworm Words.”

Tapeworm words . . . what a fascinatinglyinventivesemanticnovelty!

Learning New Words

March 24, 2021 — 26 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.

C.S. Lewis on Brevity

February 17, 2021 — 18 Comments

Regular readers of Mere Inkling are accustomed to posts that require a bit of thinking.* This one will be different.

I opted for a simpler topic, wedged as this post will be, between two more thought-provoking subjects. Avoiding verbosity is a worthwhile goal. Admittedly, it’s harder for some of us to reach, than for others who are innately succinct.

I will simply say, to promote clear communication it is necessary to (1) strip away all extraneous words, and (2) ensure that we know what the words we use mean to our hearers or readers. (This is especially true when “preaching.”)

In terms of the meanings of words, C.S. Lewis describes the value of commonly shared or “learned” language. If a word, say “baptism,” or even something simpler, such as “tree,” meant the same thing to all—communication could be much more concise.

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity (“Before We can Communicate”).

[Such learned language] can say in ten words what popular [common] speech can hardly get into a hundred. Your popularisation of the passage set will have to be very much longer than the original.” Alas, because we lack that united vocabulary, this we must just put up with.”

Still, Lewis would argue: let’s please keep the unnecessary extraneous explanation to a bare minimum. (It would be an easy task to whittle that sentence down, wouldn’t it? Let’s try.)

C.S. Lewis says using the fewest necessary words is (usually) best.

[If you would like to read a slightly more developed essay on this subject,
search no farther than “Brevity & Clear Communication,” which was published in 2017.]


* I was tempted to write “a bit of cognitive interaction,” but realized I’d be undermining my purpose for this simple post in my very first sentence!

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.

Do you practice anodyne writing? Or, perhaps you enjoy reading anodyne literature?

Talk about a phrase with two different meanings!

I must not be reading the right publications, because until recently I was only aware of the medical sense of the word. Apparently I’m not alone in having forgotten the second usage (if I ever knew it). One “publication coach” writes:

I always welcome the chance to learn new words—or to cement the knowledge of words I should know already. Anodyne falls into this latter camp. I probably confer with my dictionary at least once a year to determine the meaning of this word and yet, despite the frequent checking, I can’t seem to hold the definition in my brain.

Like so many words, anodyne enters English, via Latin, from Greek. It’s literal meaning is “without pain.” Thus, it typically refers (as a noun) to medicines or medical treatments devoted to eliminating pain.

By extension, anodyne is also applied (as an adjective) to other things, such as writing. In this context it would refer to writing where the purpose is to comfort, or to alleviate pain. This is the good sense of the word.

An example of this use appears in “L.M. Montgomery’s The Watchman and Other Poems, a Review.” There, Brenton Dickieson expertly describes the value good-but-not-great poetry by affirming its reassuring essence in its historical context. “Any one of these poems is quite nice on its own and an anodyne to the negative poetry of many of the WWI poets.” A positive, and astute, assessment.

There is, however, a second sense in which anodyne is applied to literature.* It may mean something so inoffensive, so innocuous, that it becomes boring.

At one university writing center they describe this evolution of the word.

[An anodyne word] lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. . . .

The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

So, as for anodynic writing, it is admirable when it relieves pain and suffering. If its primary goal is to be innocuous, that’s another matter. Essentially, comfort—good, pablum—not so much.

Lewis’ Use of Anodyne

Unsurprisingly, C.S. Lewis uses this word in its positive sense of alleviating discomfort. Two occurrences in The Screwtape Letters will illustrate. (Remember, these words of the counsel of one demonic tempter to another.)

But hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear.

The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame. To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.

Not only do the demons seek to foster hatred in their human targets, they encourage us to seek counterfeit solace in destructive places.

In the first place I have always found that the trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest.

The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. . . .

It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s]  invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.

Having read the majority of what C.S. Lewis published, I assert with certitude that his writing is anodyne—it is healing. Some of it may be discomforting (for a moment), and much of it may be demanding (in the sense of requiring our mental and spiritual focus to understand it), but it was all written to edify.

Postscript, Star Date 73890.7

There is one more use of the word anodyne which I did not include above, due to its fictional source. In the Star Trek universe, the starships rely on a massive number elements, including the ubiquitous “anodyne relay.”

The circuits invariably appear to be perfectly reliable during routine missions. However, they are prone to malfunctioning at critical moments and threatening the lives of everyone aboard.


* Anodyne is also applied—in both its positive and negative senses—to music and other activities.

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.

As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.

On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.

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 remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible

In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.

According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.

Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.

Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)

The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.

[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.

They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)

The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.

[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.

Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.

After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)

Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.

In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)

I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.

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.”

It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.