Language and the Meaning of Words
In several places, Lewis talks about language and our intentions with the words we use. I hope to cite a few of these occasions in the coming months. Let’s start with two ways words die.
Lewis gives two ways that a word die in his essay, aptly titled, “The Death of Words”. First, he says a word becomes eulogistic, and second, it becomes dyslogistic. It helps to know the definitions. Eulogistic means laudatory and dyslogistic is the opposite, meaning disapproval. What does Lewis mean that a word becomes either eulogistic or dyslogistic? He means a word that has lost its punch altogether or that need added adjectives to get a point across. “A skilful doctor of words,” Lewis says, “will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjectival parasites real or true.”
He moves onto talk specifically about several words.
Gentleman: “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.”
Abstract and concete: “The words abstract and concrete were first coined to express a distinction which is really necessary to thought; but it is only for the very highly educated that they still do so. In popular language concrete now means something like ‘clearly defined and practicable’; it has become a term of praise. Abstract (partly under the phonetic infection of abstruse) means ‘vague, shadowy, unsubstantial’; it has become a term of reproach.”
Modern: “Modern, in the mouths of many speakers, has ceased to be a chronological term; it has ‘sunk into a good sense’ and often means little more than ‘efficient’ or (in some contexts) ‘kind’; ‘medieval barbarities’; in the mouths of the same speakers, has no reference either to the Middle Ages or to those cultures classified as barbarian. It means simply ‘great or wicked cruelties’.”
He concludes with the word Christian.
“It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends,” he says. “It was not egalitarians, it was officious admirers of gentility, who killed the word gentleman. The other day I had occasion to say that certain people were not Christians; a critic asked how I dared say so, being unable (as of course I am) to read their hearts. I had used the word to mean ‘persons who profess belief in the specific doctrines of Christianity’; my critic wanted me to use it in what he would (rightly) call ‘a far deeper sense’—a sense so deep that no human observer can tell to whom it applies.”
Lewis admits wholly that this deep sense of the word is most important, just as a gentleman must be so, far beyond his appearance. “But,” he says, “the most important sense of a word is not always the most useful. What is the good of deepening a word’s connotation if you deprive the word of all practicable denotation? Words, as well as women, can be ‘killed with kindness’. And 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.”
What are we to say about this question Lewis presents: What is the good of deepening a word’s connotation if you deprive the word of all practicable denotation? Let’s define these terms too: connotation is the feeling a word invokes while denotation is the literal meaning of a word. In the case of the label Christian, without the demonstration of someone’s set of beliefs and actions, the word would be lost entirely. Because who knows the heart? The Bible teaches that only God knows it (I Kings 8:39). Lewis is providing another caution, to not hold so tightly to a word that it’s never defined nor sling a word to dilute its meaning completely. For example, the analysis that 62 percent of American are Christian is certainly a dilution of the term, but to say America has a good percentage of Christians is true.
Words will always come and go, change meanings and emphasis. For some words like Christian, we should guard against its misuse and work hard to keep it familiar.
John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God… . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). May the words we use have meaning and truth, knowing what we know about the God we pray to and who is revealed through the Word became flesh, Jesus Christ.