- Series: Canto
- Paperback: 342 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition (November 30, 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521398312
- ISBN-13: 978-0521398312
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #221,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Studies in Words (Canto) 2nd Edition
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"Rarely is so much learning displayed with so much grace and charm. My only regret is that the book was not twice as long." The New York Times Book Review
"...a brilliant book addressed to students and to lay people alike, unbaffling, deeply informative, and timelessly persuasive." Robert Burchfield, Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary
The connotations of words drawn from usage in English literature are studied to recover lost meanings and analyze function in this classic study of verbal communication by an authoritative analyst of the English language.
Top customer reviews
Right off the bat Lewis points out that even the most uneducated person can use several senses of a word with absolute precision, and people are fairly good amateur lexicographers when someone (say, a child) asks them what a word means. But that's today's usage. If you run into a word in an old book, say 'philosophy', it helps to know that in the old days philosophy meant all of science, including the natural sciences.
A funny thing about this book, or rather its readers, is that fans of the popular apologetic works of C.S. Lewis are bewildered or surprised by this and the other Cambridge University 'Canto' books. Keep in mind, however, that Lewis was a medieval literature specialist and a philologist by trade - and by choice. This is the field of knowledge he knew and loved, possibly even better than he knew theology! But the important thing for the general reader is that he can bring his highly specialized knowledge to bear on your general everyday thinking; and that his exuberant love for the history of words, for philosophy, and for literature is extremely apparent - and very contagious.
The strongest impression that this book has left on me is of how carefully and thoughtfully Lewis must have approached his reading. I suspect I am myself one of those who imposes the "dangerous sense" (i.e., the modern sense) onto a word when I encounter it in earlier literature, without recognizing that the meaning the author intended would have been subtly different. And it is precisely those times when the difference is most subtle that the difference is the most dangerous. I found myself somewhat exhausted by the immense range of literature from which Lewis drew his examples. Finding examples of "life" in the works of George Bernard Shaw or G. K. Chesterton probably wasn't difficult; but he quotes just as freely from Rider Haggard, Coleridge, Chaucer, Spenser, Hobbes, Ovid, Lucretius, Seneca, Plato and Aristotle -- as well as writers and works I'd never heard of before. What's most depressing is that I couldn't have pulled these sorts of examples even out of the writers that I have read. Oh well. We can't all be geniuses.
The book also challenged me to be more precise in my writing. Several times, as Lewis marched inexorably through the millennia, tracing a word from Homer to Chesterton, I was reminded of those occasions when Lewis describes "The Great Knock" (William Kirkpatrick), Lewis' early tutor, trapping a covey of female bridge players, "begging them to clarify their terms". Lewis' own writing was unusually strong and clear, even in passages markedly beref of stylistic adornments. I suspect that this was largely the result of his careful and precise use of words: never saying more or less than what he meant, never throwing in a word just for effect, and always clearly aware of the precise effect that his chosen words would have.
As is often the case, I enjoyed the opening and concluding essays the most. The chapter on "Life" was probably the most polemic -- but even there, only subtly so -- and probably for that reason the most interesting. The other essays, on "wit", "free", "nature", "simple", "sense" and "world", for instance, were interesting and informative, but not helpful in the sense that I'll likely find a use for their content. Again, it makes all the difference whether you're a medieval scholar or just a Lewis fan.
The one "philosophical" point that I came away with is that words change. Just 'cause it's "not in the dictionary" now, doesn't mean it won't be. Neologisms are always welcome here, so I no longer feel "nyeculturny" in using the word read as a noun. This ties in with what my readings in Church history have shown: theology, the "God words" that we have now came about as a result of a very often long process of change.