Since the present meaning of a word is often vaguely swayed by past meanings which have dropped into the subconscious, a knowledge of particular semantic histories can increase our facility and sometimes save us from an inadvertent error…

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis (352 pages, Cambridge University Press, 1960)

Anyone reading the literature of modern semantics with a reflective mind must conclude that many of those who pontificate about the relationship between words and their referents actually have the smallest insight into the matter. But at the opposite pole stands a student like C.S. Lewis, who traces what words of multiple significations have meant at various times and do mean in various contexts, and illustrates what he says out of a vast erudition. His Studies in Words is a series of disquisitions upon nature, sad, wit, free, sense, simple, conscious, and conscience.

There does exist in language the fact of a semantic shift, a process by which words over a period of time widen, contract, or otherwise change their roles. Of course, not all words are affected or are affected equally. But since the present meaning of a word is often vaguely swayed by past meanings which have dropped into the subconscious, a knowledge of particular semantic histories can increase our facility and sometimes save us from an inadvertent error.

It is revealing, for example, to know that frank at one time meant the same thing as free. Hence the present use of the term as a social-ethical upgrader. “The frank person is unencumbered by fear, calculation, an eye to the main chance; he also shows the straightforwardness and boldness of a noble nature.” In a comparable sense, Aristotle could speak of free studies (for him the word was eleutheria). Here is the root idea of our “liberal” education.

The free study seeks nothing beyond itself and desires the activity of knowing for that activity’s own sake. That is what the man of radically servile character—give him what leisure and what fortune you please—will never understand. He will ask, ‘But what is the use of it?’ And finding that it cannot be eaten or drunk, nor used as an aphrodisiac, nor made the instrument of increasing his income or his power, he will pronounce it—he has pronounced it to be—’bunk.’

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.”)

For readers of this journal, the author’s most valuable revelation may well be the following. Commenting on the changes which overcame the meaning of wit in the eighteenth-century discussions of literature, he has this to remark:

However little the new poetry resembled the old, those who claimed excellence for it claimed that it showed wit. As new shopkeepers who have ‘bought the goodwill’ of their predecessor’s business keep his name for a while over their door, so the literary innovators want[ed] to retain the prestige, almost the “selling power,” of the consecrated word.

And precisely so in the field of politics. Here, I suggest, is the principle that we need to explain what has happened to the term liberalism. How is it possible that nineteenth century and twentieth-century liberalism can mean virtually opposite things? Under statism and collectivism, the shopkeeper and the wares have changed, but the name is still being used over the door as a bait, because the old liberalism, with its frank acceptance of liberty, created a great reservoir of good will.

Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1963).

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