Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

21 September 2008

I’ve had this book on my Current Reading List for quite a while now, so I’m glad to finally post this review.

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

It is something of a truism to say that the English language is a constantly evolving language, one that flourishes by borrowing words from other languages, mashing two or more words together, or developing entirely new words from fragments of existing ones. This linguistic flexibility is part of what makes the English language so complicated, even for native speakers — particularly when it seems that the same word has any number of distinct meanings, depending on the context. A word like ‘wit’ or ‘wits’, for instance, can mean ‘sanity’ (‘I was nearly scared out of my wits when that car backfired!‘) or ‘intelligence’ (‘do credit me with having some wit here‘) or ‘amusing cleverness’ (‘he’s quite witty once you start talking to him‘) or even ‘a person skilled in humourous repartee’ (‘Oscar Wilde was a notable wit‘). With these subtle shades of meaning, it is not always easy to determine how these meanings developed over time and where and how new definitions slipped into everyday use. C.S. Lewis, who spent many years teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, found that even his more perceptive and intelligent students often grasped the wrong meaning of certain words because the author’s definitions (in the context of the work) were ever-so-slightly different than the meanings that the students expected to find. To address this confusion, Lewis began to delve into linguistic scholarship, attempting to trace the development of particular words with deceptively complicated origins. The result of his labours was Studies in Words, a set of essays about nine different English words (and one turn of phrase) that looks into the history of these words and explores how their meanings and uses have changed over time.

The words that Lewis chose to examine in Studies in Words seem rather ordinary at the outset, but a bit of careful probing reveals intricacies of meaning that are often so minute that native English speakers scarcely think about them in everyday speech and often misunderstand them when attempting to be more formal in speech or writing. A word like ‘simple’ seems a good deal less simple after Lewis has picked it apart from its origins in the term simplex, or something akin to an unfolded sheet of paper. Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’, for instance, are tied up in complicated notions about being privy to information or knowing something within oneself, usually something that is supposed to be kept secret. Through linguistic leaps and bounds from this original meaning, we have created the idea of a ‘guilty conscience’ — not a conscience that is guilty in itself, but a conscience that makes you feel guilty for something you did or did not do. These examples are only two of the words explored in the book; others include ‘free’, ‘sad’, ‘world’, ‘nature’, and even the phrase ‘I dare say’ (which seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary English). Two shorter chapters serve as bookends to the text, an introduction that sets out Lewis’s reasons for looking into this collection of words and a conclusion that examines the role that emotions and mental images often play in changing the nature and use of various words.

Studies in Words is as much a work of literary history as it is an extended study of linguistic development. Lewis supports his analysis with examples that range from ancient Greek and Roman texts and the classic works of Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The essays are not difficult to follow, but they do demand a certain level of attention to detail and a willingness to go back and reread an essay from the beginning if you fear that you are starting to lose the thread of Lewis’s argument. Most anyone with an interest in etymology, the history of language development, or literary history will find much to enjoy in Studies in Words — particularly as a refreshing look at a phenomenon best illustrated by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’


One comment

  1. Thanks for that, had no idea that CS Lewis had written about etymology and linguistics. Will def. give it a look if I bump into it.

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