Monday, March 28, 2011

C.S. Lewis: Studies in Words

Four times I've ordered this book from the library, a year between each order.  Each time I've renewed it the maximum number of times permitted.  And each time I've returned it to the library almost completely unread.

That's not to say I haven't tried. I am a die-hard fan of C.S. Lewis.  I've read almost all of his works, including most of the obscure ones, like "Pilgrim's Regress," "Preface to Paradise Lost," and (the one I'm tempted to call it my favorite) "The Discarded Image."  But "Studies in Words" is somehow different.

Most of Lewis' writings tend towards the apologetic or theological, and that is how most people know him. "Studies in Words," on the other hand, was drawn from Lewis' field of professional expertise (he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford) and from his extensive readings in historical literature. It is relentlessly dry, staggeringly rigorous, and unimaginably rewarding for those who venture through its pages.

Lewis begins with one of his characteristically insightful anecdotes. One of his schoolfellows, he relates, explained the odd usage of physical in a particular passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar -- "Is Brutus sick and is it physical/To walk unbraced and suck up the humours/Of the dank morning..." -- by defining physical as 'sane' or 'sensible,' as an antonym of 'mental' or 'mad.' Lewis writes: "It would be crass to laugh at that boy's ignorance without also admiring his extreme cleverness.... If we did not know that chronology ruled it out, we should regard [it] as very possible." There is no security against such errors in intelligence; indeed, "the highly intelligent and sensitive reader will, without knowledge, be most in danger of them" (pg. 4). Thus begins the book, with a call to the same degree of intellectual humility and philosophy ("love of wisdom") for which Lewis' own work is so notably.

Lewis also summarizes the various themes that will recur throughout the history of the words he would examine. It is here that he introduces "the effects of ramification," "the insulating power of the context," "the dangerous sense" of particular words, the distinction between "the word's meaning and the speaker's meaning," the prevalence of "tactical definitions," "the methodological idiom," and finally "the moralization of status-words." Space doesn't permit a detailed summary of each one, but Lewis compresses a good deal of insight into these first few pages.

Each chapter treats the history of a single word, from its point of origin to its modern-day derivations. Lewis' primary focus, however, is not on linguistic development, nor solely on the lineage of meanings and definitions, but the very essence of ideas, and how they move through the flow of human history. Thus, Lewis will often branch off to consider the parallel histories of any semantically equivalent words. For instance, the first chapter opens with the following: "In this chapter we shall have to consider Greek phusis, Latin natura (with its derivatives), and English kind." A single chapter serves to treat three words with utterly distinct origins, because all treat the same semantic idea.

One of my favorite passages offers a representative paragraph on the history of a particular word, to wit: (forgive the pun)
If a man had time to study the history of one word only, wit would perhaps be the best word he could choose. Its fortunes provide almost perfect examples of the main principles at work in semantic development. Its early life was happy and free from complications. It then acquired a sense which brought into full play the distinction between the word's and the speaker's meanings. It also suffered the worst fate any word has to fear; it became the fashionable term of approval among critics. This made it a prey to tactical definitions of a more than usually unscrupulous type, and in the heat of controversy there was some danger of its becoming a mere rallying-cry, semantically null. Meanwhile, however, popular usage was irresistibly at work in a different direction; in the end those 'who speak only to be understood' rescued it from the critics and fixed upon the useful meaning it bears today. This chequered story has --  what is rare in such matters -- a happy ending (pg 86).
Simply as an academic endeavor, "Studies in Words" really is remarkable. I doubt I've ever read its equal, in terms of the sheer number of insights uncovered from such variety of sources. I doubt I'll be able to forget the new perspective and insight that Lewis' words gave me into works that I already know and love. To use a particular obscure example, I now understand the specific sense in which Jane Austen used the word "conscious" (pg. 186) and the phrase "I dare say" (pg. 309).  There's even a theological digression (pgs. 231-232) on the philosophical basis for our modern tendency towards dualism.  The concluding chapter, "At the fringe of language," is itself an invaluable glimpse into the development and utility of what is often called 'emotional' language.

That said, however, it took a good deal of effort to really invest myself  in this book. The introduction was a breeze, but I read the next chapter more times than I care to recount. In the end, having finally finished it, I can say it was worth it. But such a work as this is not for the faint of heart.

To purchase this book, check it out at
C.S. Lewis: Studies in Words (Canto)


  1. I appreciated reading this, his chapter on "nature" is something I use from time to time in my teaching. thanks!!