C.S. Lewis and ‘The Death of Words’

C.S. Lewis, Classic Books and Ideas

Aaron Brickle

In his essay “The Death of Words,” C.S. Lewis briefly describes the horrific consequences of (for lack of a more succinct description) the evolution of language. Words change meanings, and Lewis does not contest this fact. However, Lewis does call into question whether or not this change is a good thing.

There are, indeed, few words which were once insulting and are now complimentary—democrat is the only one that comes readily to mind. But surely there are words that have become merely complimentary—words which once had a definable sense and which are now nothing more than noises of vague approval? The clearest example is the word gentleman. This was once…a term which defined a social and heraldic fact. The question whether Snooks was a gentleman was almost as soluble as the question whether he was a barrister or a Master of Arts. The same question, asked forty years ago (when it was asked very often), admitted of no solution. The word had become merely eulogistic, and the qualities on which the eulogy was based varied from moment to moment even in the mind of the same speaker. This is one of the ways in which words die. (105-6)

Lewis is greatly disturbed that words lose their power (as is evident, according to Lewis, when a speaker has to qualify his use of a dead word like gentleman by saying that someone is a ‘a true gentleman’ or ‘a real gentleman, and so forth). In fact, Lewis spends almost the whole next page depicting relativistic language. Listing word after word whose meaning has changed, Lewis observes a disturbing trend and even argues, “This process is going on very rapidly at the moment.”

Worse than this, Lewis fears that the trend will soon overtake the most important idea of our time: Christianity. Lewis is concerned that the very word Christian was at that ‘moment on the brink’ of death as a word.

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 ‘adoring 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. (107)

As a Christian, this was of course a disconcerting thought for Lewis. He looks to the future with his final statement, wondering what will happen to these ideas he holds so dear. With the destruction of the words surrounding them, will they survive the test of time?

What is the good of deepening a word’s connotation if you deprive the word of all practical 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 you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that the word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say. (107)

It’s all quite interesting, really. The idea of the true power of words, or perhaps more specifically, “meaning.” I have, in my own personal experience, found two major applications for this. The first being in the secular response to profanity.

One of the most common justifications I’ve heard from my secular friends for their less than savory language has been that “They’re just words.” This in not an incorrect statement. They are just words. But, as Lewis so succinctly observes—succinctly for Lewis anyway—words have meaning. To drop the dreaded F-Bomb on someone implies more than just frustration, legalistically. To cuss someone out is to do a lot more than just “use words” at them.

My second point of contention with the idea of relative definitions comes in the gay marriage debate. As far as that is concerned, a large part of the Supreme Court discourse revolved around the definition of the word “marriage,” and the subsequent legal ramifications of said definition.

If Lewis knew that such a debate were going on in our time, would he probably die yet again? The ability for a governmental body to judiciously change the legal meaning of a non-legal word (and I would go so far as to call it a principal), what could that mean for the future? Could the constitutional right to freedom of religion be redefined as “State authorized spiritual gatherings only?”

I think it is incredibly important to keep the subtle power of words in mind. Perception can be swayed based on word choice. And, as Christian communicators of language, we have a moral obligation to honestly present the facts, whatever they may be.

(1). Lewis, C.S. On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc. 1982.