Studies in Words by C. S. Lewis (Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, first published 1960)
As I said previously, this is not a book aimed at the hoi polloi—those of us without a strong background in classical literature, Latin, Greek, French, and whatever else scholars were supposed to know in Lewis's day. It is a scholarly, not a popular book. I don't pretend I understood half of what he says, although I could have done better if I'd been more patient. No matter. I still learned a lot. I knew that ignorance of history causes us to misunderstand and falsely judge those who have gone before us; I know now that ignorance of the history of language does the same for the written word. Writing freezes an author's words at a moment in time, while the meaning of those words continues to evolve. Without knowing what a word meant to the author, we may get an entirely false picture of what he is saying.
So what should we do? I think, for ordinary readers, the best we can manage is to be aware that there might be a significant difference between what the author meant and what we think he has said. Simple awareness of the problem should give us the humilty to know that we might not know. And if the word, or phrase, or idea is something we think significant, we—unlike Lewis's original audience—have Google to assist us with a little philological research.
Here are just a few quotes, which ought to be clear enough despite lack of context. Bolded emphasis is mine.
Where the duller reader simply does not understand [a strange phrase], [the highly intelligent and sensitive reader] misunderstands—triumphantly, brilliantly. But it is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended. "Brilliant" explanations of a passage often show that a clever, insufficiently informed man has found one more mare’s nest. The wise reader, far from boasting an ingenuity which will find sense in what looks like nonsense, will not accept even the most slightly strained meaning until he is quite sure that the history of the word does not permit something far simpler. (p. 3)
All my life the epithet bourgeois has been, in many contexts, a term of contempt, but not for the same reason. When I was a boy—a bourgeois boy—it was applied to my social class by the class above it; bourgeois meant "not aristocratic, therefore vulgar." When I was in my twenties this changed. My class was now vilified by the class below it; bourgeois began to mean "not proletarian, therefore parasitic, reactionary." Thus it has always been a reproach to assign a man to that class which has provided the world with nearly all its divines, poets, philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, doctors, architects, and administrators. (p. 21)
When we deplore the human interferences, then the nature which they have altered is of course the unspoiled, the uncorrupted; when we approve them, it is the raw, the unimproved, the savage. (p. 46)
We have learned also from Aristotle, that we must "study what is natural from specimens which are in their natural condition, not from damaged ones." (p. 56)
It's interesting how often we don't follow Aristotle's advice, how often we try to improve situations by concentrating on that which is broken, instead of studying what is working right—from medicine to education, from business to family life.
Unless followed by the word "education," liberal has now lost this meaning [seeking knowledge for its own sake]. For that loss, so damaging to the whole of our cultural outlook, we must thank those who made it the name, first of a political, and then of a theological, party. The same irresponsible rapacity, the desire to appropriate a word for its "selling-power," has often done linguistic mischief. It is not easy now to say at all in English what the word conservative would have said if it had not been "cornered" by politicians. Evangelical, intellectual, rationalist, and temperance have been destroyed in the same way. Sometimes the arrogation is so outrageous that it fails; the Quakers have not killed the word friends. (p. 131)
That English and Protestant authors ... should depend for a scriptural phrase either on Vulgate or Rheims will seem strange to many. Very ill-grounded ideas about the exclusive importance of the Authorized Version in the English biblical tradition are still widely held. (p. 144)
Communis (open, unbarred, to be shared) can mean friendly, affable, sympathetic. Hence communis sensus is the quality of the "good mixer," courtesy, clubbableness, even fellow-feeling. Quintilian says it is better to send a boy to school than to have a private tutor for him at home; for if he is kept away from the herd (congressus) how will he ever learn that sensus which we call Communis? (p. 146)
Innocent, simple, silly, ingenuous ... all illustrate the same thing—the remarkable tendency of adjectives which originally imputed great goodness, to become terms of disparagement. Give a good quality a name and that name will soon be the name of a defect. Pious and respectable are among the comparatively modern casualties, and sanctimonious was once a term of praise. (p. 173)
One of the first things we have to say to a beginner who has brought us his [manuscript] is, "Avoid all epithets which are merely emotional. It is no use telling us that something was 'mysterious' or 'loathsome' or 'awe-inspiring' or 'voluptuous.' Do you think your readers will believe you just because you say so? You must go quite a different way to work. By direct description, by metaphor and simile, by secretly evoking powerful associations, by offering the right stimuli to our nerves (in the right degree and the right order), and by the very beat and vowel-melody and length and brevity of your sentences, you must bring it about that we, we readers, not you, exclaim 'how mysterious!' or 'loathsome' or whatever it is. Let me taste for myself, and you’ll have no need to tell me how I should react to the flavour." (pp 317-318)
And I thought the insistence on "show, don't tell" among current authors was a recent phenomenon. But C. S. Lewis agreed.
The "swear-words"—damn for complaint and damn you for abuse—are a good example. Historically the whole Christian eschatology lies behind them. If no one had ever consigned his enemy to the eternal fires and believed that there were eternal fires to receive him, these ejaculations would never have existed. But inflation, the spontaneous hyperboles of ill temper, and the decay of religion, have long since emptied them of that lurid content. Those who have no belief in damnation—and some who have—now damn inanimate objects which would on any view be ineligible for it. The word is no longer an imprecation. It is hardly, in the full sense, a word at all when so used. Its popularity probably owes as much to its resounding phonetic virtues as to any, even fanciful, association with hell. It has ceased to be profane. It has also become very much less forceful. (pp. 321-322)
I have noticed this effect with profanity today. No matter how much it bothers me, I have to admit that the monumental overuse of words that in my youth weren't even allowed in the dictionary has pulled some of their teeth. On the other hand, it appears that the human creature has a need for forbidden words, because at the same time as we have liberated the old theological, scatological, and sexual epithets, old words have been repurposed into new obscenities. Oddly enough, those who are most free in the ubiquitous overuse of the old swear words, even—or especially—in the presence of those who still find them offensive, are often the least tolerant of those who fail to acknowlege the new prohibitions.