Saturday, July 25, 2009

The trouble allowing words to slip into the abyss.

To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language. 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; civilized (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 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 specialized perversion which actually afflicted M. de Sade?

—C. S. Lewis, "The Death of Words," On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 106-107.

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