Tag Archives: owen barfield

Concluding Thought on Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

I have to return Owen Barfield’s History in English Words to the InterLibrary Loan, so I am putting in a quick, final comment here.

Owen Barfield was one of C. S. Lewis’ most influential friends, and exceptionally brilliant. J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, was profoundly influenced as well by Barfield.

Barfield was most definitely quirky, theologically. But it really is amazing how Barfield was able to put together the philological insights he had in this relatively short book.

I am ultimately a “Bible guy” on the “God Squad,” as some people think of me. But I am just fascinated by how Christians, and my fellow evangelicals, in particular, get stuck on the meanings of words, as they make their way from the pages of the Sacred Text, through voices of preachers in the pulpit, to the average Christian, who is trying to figure out what the Bible is all about. Even more fascinating is how various interpretations of the Bible, that are hinged upon key words, get morphed over time, without people completely realizing it. Barfield is a great companion here, to work these thoughts out, in this introduction to his thought, History in English Words.

The standard recommendation for studying Barfield is generally to start with History in English Words, then move on to read Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, and then finally tackle his Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry. Not sure when I will be able to get to these.

In the meantime, back to C.S. Lewis (later this summer??)…..

“Conservative” and “Liberal” as Christian Labels

A quick followup to a previous post from a week or so ago about “verbicide”…..The shifting sands of culture, underneath our very feet, have a far reaching impact on how Christians use words.

Take the labels “conservative” and “liberal.”  To conserve, as in conserving or preserving a tradition, is pretty straight forward.  To be liberal, or to liberate, is to set free, or to discard a tradition, is well known. But most of the time, we use these type of words as pejoratives, to identify parties or viewpoints we do not like.

Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings, in company with friend C.S. Lewis, writes about the history behind the adoption of the predecessor words to “conservative” and “liberal,” namely “tory” and “whig,” respectively (History of English Words, p.73-74).

“Spite, which always loves a rich vocabulary, is also the father of those venerable labels tory and whig. The old Celtic word tory was first applied in the seventeenth century to the unfortunate Irish Catholics, dispossessed by Cromwell, who became savage outlaws living chiefly upon plunder; after that it was used for some time of bandits in general, and at the close of James II’s reign the ‘Exclusioners’ found it a conveniently offensive nickname for those who favored the succession of the Roman Catholic James, Duke of York. Thus, when William of Orange finally succeeded in reaching the throne, it became the approved name of one of the two great political parties in Great Britain. Whig is shortened of whiggamore , a name given to certain Scotchmen from the word whiggam, which they used in driving their horses. It was first used of the rebellious Scottish Covenanters who march to Edinburgh in 1648; then of the Exclusioners, who were opposed to the accession of James; and finally, from 1689 onwards, of the other great political party or one of its adherents.”

Lewis himself observes that the terms conservative and liberal came to replace tory and whig, having been born into a political context. Along with the terminology of conservative and liberal came the use of right and left.

In the summer of 1789, France had its revolution, only 14 years after the American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain. That summer, the French were divided amongst themselves as to what to do with the French monarchy, which had become an unmanageable form of government under King Louis  XVI, burdened by overwhelming financial debt. When the French National Assembly met to draft a constitution, different parties gathered together in the room, according to their sympathies.

The meeting of the famous Tennis Court Oath, when French leaders met on a tennis court, standing on one side of the tennis net, as opposed to the other, gives a visual picture of when “right” and “left” got embedded in the Western consciousness. Those who favored a constitutional form of monarchy, much like the British system, gathered on the right side of the room. Those who favored dismantling the traditional monarchy, advocating a more egalitarian form of governance, gathered on the left side of the room. The language of right wing and left wing has been with us ever since.

Eventually, such political language entered the theological arena, whereby conservatives on the right would hold to a more traditional view of Scripture and Bible doctrine, and liberals on the left would reject such tradition. Among evangelicals today, the use of the word “liberal” is tantamount to questioning a person’s theological orthodoxy. Alternatively, to be a “conservative” theologically is considered to be a good thing, as the surrounding Western culture continues to be ripped from its traditional, Judeo-Christian moorings. But when and if such “conservatism” is perceived to be reactionary, or otherwise ill-advised, we often hear more pejorative sounding words used to describe one’s theology, like the word “fundamentalist.”

What a shift from the older meanings that these words once possessed! To be “conservative” was once understood to be something noble, conserving those traditions which were indeed truly good. To be “liberal” was to contend for freedom, one of the greatest virtues found in the Bible, as in, for the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Alas, not any more.

Labels. Labels. Labels.

How Modernity Influenced the Evolution of English Words

I have been reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, and it has some amazing insights into how language changes.

By way of introduction, consider the cartoon above, about “thinking outside of the box.” Today, “thinking outside of the box” is thought of as a virtue. It suggests getting outside of one’s traditional, conceptual world, and considering a larger context for thought. The adage is promoted all over the English-speaking world, ranging from staff development training sessions in corporations, to our political discussions, and in how we think about our view of the world more broadly.

But is it really possible to completely “think outside of the box?” Or is it more accurate to say that humans who uphold such a virtue are really just jumping from one box into another box, merely fooling themselves that they are somehow above the “boxes” that others impose on them? What about the boxes we all impose on ourselves, without realizing it? What happens when you think you are “thinking outside of the box,” only to eventually discover yourself living inside some other box?

The age of the “Enlightenment,” or what some call “modernity,” represents that period in Western history when science developed in ways unimagined heretofore. Now, there have always been Christians, like myself, who believe that science and faith go hand-in-hand with one another, or at the very least, say that science and faith are not at war with one another. But the rise of science, and along with it, the more metaphysically-minded belief of scientism, has had a massive influence on how the English language has changed over just the past few centuries, as scientism leans towards having a more ideological focus, intent on supplanting Christianity…. as though scientism seeks to “think outside of the box” of Christianity.

For example, Barfield in his chapter on Mechanism (p.183-200) notes that the practice of adding the tag of “-ism” to an end of the word, as in scientism, is a modern development, indicating a change in how modern people have a more “contemplative attitude towards all we ourselves do and feel and think,” as Barfield framed it. Perhaps this is because we live in a world that is so captivated by science, along with the accoutrements of technology, with our washing machines, and other labor-saving devices, with our cell phones and Google, all affording us the time and energy to be more contemplative, at least for some. We then take something like science, and give it a more ideological component, by adding the “-ism” tag to the ending of the word. Also, there is the word feminine, which gives us now the related feminism, as well as the word human, and its modern related humanism. The list can go on.

Then there is the whole trend towards the secular, in an attempt to marginalize the spiritual. The growth of scientism has enabled the popularity of words like determinism, as a secular alternative to the word predestination, allowing one to speak of such things without the theological assumptions of the latter.

The practice of prepending “self-” to a whole variety of words, is in particular a product of the Enlightenment, as with words like self-acceptanceself-respect and self-help. You never had self-help books written prior to 19th century, but we are completely overwhelmed with the self-help genre in books today.

The word pious once meant describing someone as devout and spiritually faithful. Now it has the connotation of feeble-mindedness. Even the word religion, which once meant something to describe the whole of human life, with respect to one’s relationship with God, has now been placed in a special category. To be religious is be someone who believes in God, as though religion is a type of add-on to human existence, and not something essential to human existence. In other words, everyone is a human being, but only some are religious, a way of thinking that would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago.

All of these changes are new, as the modern world has sought to divide the natural and supernatural realms, which were formerly united.

Methinks that the advocates of scientism today have simply jumped out of one box, into another box, without knowing it.

The Problem with Words

You all will probably think I am weird.

But for some upcoming blog posts, I plan on blogging some thoughts every now and then about the problem with words.

Over the past year or so, it occurred to me that many Christians get hung up on how we use certain words, in theological discussion. A lot of strife between believers is due to not having a basic agreement on terminology, when we engage in important discussions about the Bible.

This is not uniquely a Christian problem. It is a problem with the whole human race. Somewhere, I am sure that our sinfulness figures into the equation. But Christians are especially susceptible to the problem because we look to a text, namely “the Bible,” as our authority. So, when you deal with a text, you are dealing with words, and often, words gets lost in translation, and in our communication with other believers.

I confess, that I am not always good at it myself.

When confusion results, because of our failure to grasp a common vocabulary, this is not good for people who believe that God has revealed Himself through the pages of Scripture. So, I decided to read some of the writings of “The Inklings,” that 20th century British braintrust, that met together weekly in a pub, to discuss the really big things in life, to give me some help.

In particular, I checked out C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words, and Owen Barfield’s History in English Words. Both Lewis and Barfield were experts in philology, or the study of language. Barfield’s theology is a bit strange, compared to Lewis’ “mere Christianity,” but both writers give us tremendous insight into some of the challenges in how language evolves over time, and how we end up using words, in our communication.

For a quick example, Owen Barfield (p.66) writes about a certain Sir John Cheke, a 16th English Reformer, who worked on an English translation of the Book of Matthew. For about a thousand years prior to Cheke, the only readily available translation of the Bible in England was St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. But like more well-known Reformers, such as William Tyndale, Cheke believed that the Bible should be accessible in the mother tongue of his native England, in a language that everyone could read, as the average person understood very little of Latin.

But Cheke was very creative in his English translation of Matthew, looking for uniquely English words, or closely English-like words, to translate certain terms, instead of trying to borrow from Latin.  The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible translates Matthew 4:24 like this:

And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.

Notice how the KJV translators used the word “lunatick” to describe someone who was probably mentally ill. Cheke thought “lunatick,” or our more modern, “lunatic,” to be too Latinized. So, he came up with his own word, derived from the traditional English word, for that brightest object in the nighttime sky, “moond.”

Have you ever thought of a crazy person as being “moond?”  No, I did not think so. Neither did I.

The etymology for the word, luna, the root for lunatic, is derived from an old Latin name for the “goddess of the moon.” Perhaps Cheke believed that the pagan or occultic ideas associated with the word lunatic were inappropriate for use in the Bible, whereas the traditional English moon, could be slightly altered to signify the same idea, with less pagan connotations. I do not know, but it is fascinating to think about.

As an aside, this helps me to better understand why some Christians refuse to use the word “Easter” to speak of Christ’s Resurrection, claiming that the concept of Easter is rooted in pagan mythology.

As a further aside, Barfield notes (p. 65,) that John Wycliffe, the 14th century translator of the Bible into English, used the English-sounding word againrising to translate the Latin word resurrectio, as well as the English-sounding undeadliness to translate the Latin word immortalitas.

I often wonder what the English-speaking world would be like if Wycliffe’s translation of these words would have won out over the traditional Latin transliterations into English.

Anyway, back to Sir John Cheke….

Here are a few more examples of Cheke’s attempt to de-Latinize the Bible:

  • Instead of the Latin word centurion, as in a “Roman centurion,” Cheke opted for the word hundreder.
  • Instead of the Latin word apostle, Cheke chose the word frosent.  This strange word frosent, was derived from a short phrase “from-sent,” since an apostle basically means someone who is sent out by someone else; as in when Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, in Matthew 10.
  • Instead of the Latin word crucified, Cheke translated that as crossed.
  • Instead of the Latin word proselyte, Cheke translated that as freshman.

That all sounds really quirky to us today, for the simple reason that Cheke’s translation of the Book of Matthew never really caught on with 16th century English readers.

Which is why most people have never heard of Sir John Cheke.

Which is why we find more Latinized words, even in some of our more modern translations still today, like centurion, apostle, crucified, proselyte, …. and lunatic.

Words are funny things, are they not?

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Other posts in this series:

How Modernity Influenced the Evolution of English Words

How Christians Change Words


Conservative and Liberal as Christian Labels

Concluding Thoughts on Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

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