Semantic change - etymology - philology - the history of words, or word-complexes, is often dealt with in a dictionary by an abbreviated form of 'it used to mean X, but now it means Y' explanation, and perhaps this is the most realistic way of handling the matter in a dictionary. Modern linguists have their own rigourous and abstract techniques. But in this intellectually demanding work C. S. Lewis, working at the height of his powers, takes the widest of perspectives, and retains depth of focus. He traces the changing meanings of several words, over the centuries and millennia, from their Greco-Roman and Anglo-Saxon roots to the modern day. The result is valuable exposition, with depth both in psychology and philosophy, and rich in literary source material. The words themselves are treated as living entities, evolving by expansion, contraction, and development of new forms. His chosen words are: 'nature', 'sad', 'wit', 'free', 'sense', 'simple', 'conscience and conscious', 'world', 'life', and 'I dare say'.
As Lewis says, 'The point of view is merely lexical and historical', and 'not an essay in higher linguistics', but this belies the many adventitious benefits that stem from his handling of the resources at his command. His purpose is to give us 'an aid to more accurate reading' and to throw light 'on ideas and sentiments'. I find that in so doing he imparts as much practical technique, knowledge, and enthusiasm for words as a whole year's worth of undergraduate linguistics. For instance, the subtlety of usage of a phrase like 'I dare say' and the potential for even complete reversal in meaning is illustrated through centuries of use from Malory, Dickens, W. S. Gilbert, E. Nesbit, Dorothy L. Sayers, debate in the House of Lords, John Bunyan, and Jane Austen. The result is not a mere catalogue of shades of meaning, but an analysis and satisfying literary work in its own right - and that's just one chapter. The index alone references about two hundred authors from Aeschylus and Augustine to Xenophon and Yeats. The twenty-three page introduction and final chapter ('At the fringe of language') together form a valuable essay on the practical use of language, and I commend them to anyone interested in sharpening their use of the spoken or written word.
This report prepared by Michael JR Jose