Monday, July 2, 2018

Words slipping into the abyss

The miss-use of words often results in the loss of their useful meaning. Today that has pretty much happened to "racist" and "fascist" and "communist." From a 1944 essay in The Spectator, "The Death of Words," by C.S. Lewis:
.... A skilful doctor of words will pronounce the disease to be mortal at that moment when the word in question begins to harbour the adjectival 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. ....

And I can think of one word—the word Christian—which is at this moment on the brink. When politicians talk of "Christian moral standards" they are not always thinking of anything which distinguishes Christian morality from Confucian or Stoic or Benthamite morality. One often feels that it is merely one literary variant among the "adorning epithets" which, in our political style, the expression "moral standards" is felt to require; civilised (another ruined word) or modern or democratic or enlightened would have done just as well. But it will really be a great nuisance if the word Christian becomes simply a synonym for good. For historians, if no one else, will still sometimes need the word in its proper sense, and what will they do? That is always the trouble about allowing words to slip into the abyss. Once turn swine into a mere insult, and you need a new word (pig) when you want to talk about the animal. Once let sadism dwindle into a useless synonym for cruelty, and what do you do when you have to refer to the highly special perversion which actually afflicted M. de Sade?

It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian 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. 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. ....

What is the good of deepening a word's connotation if you deprive the word of all practicable denotation? Words...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.