Abusing Words

Here’s something to consider when coming to the classics: words have meaning to them. That may seem simple enough to understand that it should bear no repeating, but it is something that needs to be discussed. The idea that words communicate meaning is an assumption (as this writing would be meaningless otherwise), what should not be assumed is that everyone is using the same definitions.

In the preface to his work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis uses the example of the word ‘gentleman’ to show how a word with a specific meaning can be ‘‪spiritualized‬’ and made to mean entirely something else.

“The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.”

Think of any hot topic, buzz word, or volatile term being used by your surrounding community. How often is the same word used by opposing sides in an attempt to prove their own point? In my personal experience I have found that simply asking someone to define what they mean allows me to not only better understand what they are communicating, but more often than not I find everyone means something different when using the same word. Overcoming the barriers of ideological presuppositions given to words can prove to be very difficult.

With the classics there is an added barrier of time and language between the writer, the original audience, the translator (unless you are reading in the original language), and you, the reader. Our words change meaning, our words have different definitions. Once this is understood we can approach the classics with questions such as what does virtue and justice mean to the Socrates and Aristotle. We then won’t be surprised if it may not be what we thought it would mean. Once that hurdle is overcome then we can begin to dialogue with the authors and enter into their world.

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