The great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, by all accounts, was a brilliant philologist, an expert in language, particularly as he related to the study of medieval literature. His remarkable Studies in Words, is a collection of essays examining the history of how words develop and change in language.
I am a software engineer by trade, and I am not surely not the best writer (just pick through the proof-reading errors I make in more than a few of my blog posts!). But I got interested in philology by following some of the big theological debates, that bring out divisions among Christians, as well as by thinking about the power and use of symbols in popular culture today. A lot of people will pick a side on a particular debate, based largely on how particular words are defined, in that debate. Without fail, those on the other side of the debate, will pick that side, based largely on different definitions of those same particular words!
Half the battle, when it comes to theological and cultural discussion, comes down to trying to determine the exact meaning of certain words. Such meanings of words can change very easily, which explains why a lot of theological and cultural debates generate more heat than light.
In this post, I am simply jotting down notes, or otherwise quoting Lewis (or other reviewers of Studies in Words), to help illuminate the problem with words. As I write this post in June, 2020, the American culture is convulsed by protests, and even rioting, over racially-biased, police brutality. I hear calls for “defund the police.” What do people mean by that, “defund the police?” Well, it depends on you talk to, and it seems like everyone has a different understanding of what that even looks like. We need the wisdom of C.S. Lewis now, more than ever.
Insights Gained from C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words
Sometimes, words can be altogether killed, making them almost useless in discussion. C.S. Lewis writes a lot about this in Studies in Words, referring to this persistent habit as verbicide. Consider the word “liberal.” Here is what Lewis has to say:
- “Unless followed by the word ‘education’, liberal has now lost [its] meaning. For that loss, so damaging to the whole of our cultural outlook, we must thank those who made it the name, first of a political, and then a theological party. The same irresponsible rapacity, the desire to appropriate a word for its ‘selling power’, has often done linguistic mischief. It is not easy now to say at all in English what the word conservative would have said if it had not been ‘cornered’ by the politicians. Evangelical, intellectual, rationalist, and temperance have been destroyed in the same way. Sometimes the arrogation is so outrageous that it fails; the Quakers have not killed the word friends. And sometimes so many different people grab at the coveted word for so many different groups or factions that, while it is spoiled for its original purpose, none of the grabbers achieve secure possession. Humanist is an example; it will probably end by being a term of eulogy as vague as gentleman….. We cannot stop the verbicides. The most we can do is not the imitate them.” (Studies in Words, p 133).
Lewis wrote that in 1959. But it still hangs pretty well together today.
In that same essay, on the word “free,” associated with the Latin liber, which gives us liberal, Lewis traces the development of the related word frank, and in contrast, the word villain. The former refers to the period of the Frankish conquest, where the Franks were the conquerers. The Franks were those who were free. The conquered were those peasants who were not free, being attached to an estate, which at one time had been a Roman villa. The conquered were therefore, the villains.
The term villain over time took on a completely pejorative meaning, that of being a “bad person.” Alternatively, the term frank was originally associated with being “free.” But frank eventually takes on a twist in that meaning, as being “unencumbered.” To be frank with someone, assumes that one is unencumbered, and not held back by some restraint.
Lewis’ examination of the words conscious and conscience is also greatly enlightening. The philosopher Richard Weaver summarizes Lewis nicely, in his spring 1963 review of Lewis’ book, published in Modern Age:
- “Conscious and conscience were once so near in meaning as almost to excuse the college freshman’s habitual mistaking of the one for the other. To have conscience meant originally to be conscious of what you know—to pull yourself together in an act of recollection. The meaning is present in the Latin conscire: “to know together.” Only later did the noun come to mean something like “the lawgiver” or “the fear of hell.” (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”)“
Lewis compares how the Bible makes use of these different senses of conscious and conscience. But looking at modern translations, things get very curious indeed: For example, in 1 Corinthians 4:4, retains the sense of conscious, as in having an awareness, as in “For I am not aware of anything against myself” (ESV). Yet the NIV goes at it slightly differently, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent” (NIV 2011). Does that really mean the same thing?
The wording takes on the newer meaning in 1 Corinthians 8:10. “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” (ESV). Here conscience acts as an internal lawgiver. Paul’s concern is that someone might be encouraged to go against their internal lawgiver; that is, their conscience. The NIV likewise concurs: “For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?”
Likewise, Romans 13:5 appeals to conscience as the internal law giver. “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (ESV).
But compare to the older meaning, which is suggested in the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:2: “…and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (ESV). Here, the “wife’s knowledge” is about having knowledge, or as the KJV puts it, “his wife also being privy to it.” It is about being conscious of something, but not in the sense of having a conscience about something, which would suggest that the inner lawgiver was at work.
Yet I would agree with Lewis that giving voice to one’s conscience is not merely, or simply about giving one’s opinion (p. 204). Too often I hear Christians react with incredulity when hearing of someone’s opinion, that differs with their own, as in Paul’s teachings about “disputable matters,” in Romans 14:1. For the notion of one’s opinion may or may not carry any moral force to it. It is altogether too easy for someone condescendingly slough off the opinion of another, without any regard for the other’s conscience, informed by that other person’s inner lawgiver. If someone’s opinion carries some type of moral force to it, it would behoove a Christian to tenderly respect the conscience of someone else, expressing such a contrary opinion, and not try to force the other person to think exactly like yourself. Compassion, listening, conversation, prayer, and having patience in trying to gain clarity should be the task of the Christian instead. This is easier said than done, as my personal life experience can easily attest! Someone else’s conscience may indeed be horribly misguided, but a gentle approach in seeking to persuade is far superior than cavalier dismissal or abusive attack.
Another eye-opening lesson I learned from Lewis was in his history of the word “world.” In one sense, world refers to an aspect of time, like “the world we live in today.” In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 90:2 reads “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.” That last phrase, “world without end” means “age without end,” per Lewis. The ESV reads the BCP version of “thou art God from everlasting, and world without end” as “from everlasting to everlasting you are God,” which makes more sense to me (see Lewis, p. 214).
But the second sense Lewis mentions is probably more prevalent, in that it refers to an aspect of space, and not an aspect of time. For example, world could mean the “earth” or the “universe.” So, in looking at the above Psalm 90:2, the phrase “the earth and the world were made” could be understood as “the earth and the rest of the universe.” The NIV just simplifies the phrase as “you brought forth the whole world,” which would imply the whole universe.
This helped me just recently in understanding how to read Hebrews 1:1-3. Interestingly, the Greek language has no word for the English “universe.” Yet, the NIV speaks of the Son making “the universe,” while the ESV calls it “the world,” at the end of verse 2. In verse 3, the ESV turns around and says the Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” But the NIV says that the Son is “sustaining all things by his powerful word.” So, here, the ESV’s “universe” is translating the Greek word “panta,” which the NIV, more literally, has “all things.”
Furthermore, Lewis notes (p. 224) that world, in this spatial sense, can have multiple meanings, such as “earth” or, more specifically, “the inhabited earth” (see Matthew 24:14), which may not necessarily mean the whole planet. It could also mean something as in “the cares of this world” (see Matthew 13:22).
Going back to a more time-oriented understanding, the Greek word “aion” is often translated as “forever“, as in “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”, found in 1 John 2:17, but “the world,” from the Greek “kosmos,” is understood as the temporary state of things we are now living in, which can be a source of confusion. A good example of this confusion is how different translations translate the “Neither in this aion nor in the aion to come,” found in Matthew 12:32. The ESV reads: “in this age or in the age to come.” But the NLT has: “in this world or in the world to come.” Mmmm… food for thought.
Ah, but somewhat controversially, Lewis opines on the meaning of that word aion, when it comes to eternity: “The whole tenor of the New Testament implies that the life of the new aion will be immortal. But, except in parables, there seems to be very little suggestion of any realm of the dead to which all souls at all times have passed in virtue of their intrinsic indestructibility. If they believed in Hades, the first Christians seem, as Christians, to take no interest in it. What gives entry to the new aion is not natural immortality but miraculous resurrection (Luke xx.35).” (Lewis, p. 235). Now, that is a head scratcher!
Lewis also notes that the current age, or aion we live in, is also Scripturally understood to be evil. This has led to the development of the word world to have both a neutral significance, as in “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), which suggests that this is about the inhabited world, but also a pejorative meaning, too, as in “Love not the world” (1 John 2:15). We eventually get out of this the concept of “worldly.” One can have “worldly cares,” which can be neutral, but it can also be worldly, in the sense of decadence.
Such a fuzzy distinction in understanding the meaning of world illuminates a classic theological controversy, limited vs. universal atonement. Calvinists believe in limited atonement, suggesting that Jesus died only for the elect. Alternatively, Arminians believe in universal atonement, suggesting that Jesus died for all humans. Consider John 1:29, where the Lamb of God “takes away the sins of the world.” Is the world here universal in character, meaning all humans? Or this only about the elect? Is it taken “at face value” to include everyone, or is it hyperbole? It all depends on how you define world.
Lewis has a more technical writing style in Studies in Words, unlike what we find in his children’s novels. So, there were moments in reading Studies in Words, that I got lost in trying to make way through some of the technical aspects of philology. Plus, I am not entirely familiar with all of the great literature that Lewis uses as examples in how words are used, to my embarrassment. But it was in reading some of the gems, as in what I quoted and referred to above, that makes Studies in Words an excellent guide for looking at how words do indeed change meaning in the English language, for good or for ill.
Thanks to Lewis, I am inclined, now more than ever, to ask “What do you mean by that?,” when someone uses a word, where I am not so clear by what they mean by that word. I will close with this cheerful display of Lewis’ rhetoric, covering the history behind the use of “swear words”:
- “The ‘swear words’ — damn for complaint and damn you for abuse — are a good example. Historically the whole Christian eschatology lies behind them. If no one had ever consigned his enemy to the eternal fires and believed that there were eternal fires to receive him, these ejaculations would never have existed. But inflation, the spontaneous hyperboles of ill temper, and the decay of religion, have long since emptied them of that lurid content. Those who have no belief in damnation — and some who have — now damn inanimate objects which would on any view be ineligible for it. The word is no longer an imprecation. It is hardly, in the full sense, a word at all when so used. Its popularity probably owes as much to its resounding phonetic virtues as to any, even fanciful, association with hell. It has ceased to be profane…
- So with abusive terms. No one would now call his… next door neighbor a swine unless someone had once used this word to make a real comparison between his enemy and a pig…. Now [such words] are nothing whatever but emotional stimulants, they are weak emotional stimulants. They make no particular accusation. They tell us nothing except that the speaker has lost his temper…. It would have been far more wounding to be called swine when the word still carried some whiff of the scent and some echo of a grunt…
- This can be seen clearly when we catch a word ‘just on the turn’. Bitch is one. Till recently — and still in the proper contexts — this accused a woman of one particular fault and appealed, with some success, to our contempt by calling up an image of the she-dog’s comical and indecorous behavior when she is on heat. But it is now increasingly used of any woman who the speaker, for whatever reason, is annoyed with — the female driver who is in front of him, or a female magistrate whom he thinks is unjust. Clearly, the word is far more wounding in its narrower usage. If that usage is ever totally lost — as I think it will be — the word will sink to the level of damn her.” (Studies in Words, pp. 321-324).
I should remember this the next time I accidentally strike a blow with my hammer on my thumb.