Author Quotes: C.S. Lewis and How Words Die


“A skillful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjective parasites real or true. As long as gentleman has a clear meaning, it is enough to say that So-and-so is a gentleman. When we begin saying that he is a ‘real gentleman’ or ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a gentleman in the truest sense’ we may be sure that the word has not long to live.
. . .The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition. As old horses go to the knacker’s yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.

– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the essay entitled The Death Of Words.

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A great example of this happened to me just a few days ago when I asked my wife a question which offended her. She was not offended by the question itself so much as the fact that I accused her of having a “scheme”. She, like many, automatically assumed a “scheme” to have negative connotations when, in fact, its original meaning is simply to have a coherent and consistent plan of action.

I have frequently seen commentary on the way that English language usage has evolved to use words like “love” so broadly as to describe both affections for a grandmother and desire for a cheeseburger, but rarely have I heard a discussion of what we do to allow the changes to take place. While I enjoy slang as much as the next person might, Lewis’ point is driven home for anyone who is familiar with buzzwords from various time periods. Often a word (or whole sets of words) that had specific meanings to generations before are effectively rendered general, then banal, then obsolete. I am constantly stumbling onto new antique words or phrases with fascinating origins that often provide unique clarity when they are properly understood.

Lewis goes on to say,

“It is important to notice that the danger to the word. . .comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility, who killed the word gentleman. . .when, however reverently, you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”

On this line of logic, perhaps we could save ourselves some history lessons if we spent more time preserving an understanding of our language.

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