The Death of Words like Condescend

Bruce N H

Hi all,

(BTW, not so much a direct question, but for some reason I can't "post a new thread" in the other sub-forum - it keeps saying I need to log in and I keep logging in).

In Exploring LotR 66, July 10, 2018, there was some discussion of the word "condescend" in its original and modern uses.* I'm pretty sure we've also previously discussed the word villain in the same way, and I'm quite sure we'll see some discussion along these lines in the Malory class (again words like villain and gentleman, but also chivalry). Anyway, and I'm sure Corey is very familiar with this essay, but if others haven't read it I'd point you to C.S. Lewis' "The Death of Words". It's in the collection On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, but much more conveniently you can find it in the archives of the Spectator (the magazine where it was originally published) at this link:
He looks at the usage of words like gentleman, villain, abstract, concrete, modern, practical, contemporary, Christian, and others, and writes about how their meanings have been lost. Lewis doesn't discuss "condescend", but it could go on that list. The key quote is this:

"The truth is that words originally. descriptive tend to become terms either of mere praise or of mere blame. The vocabulary-of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary-of definition. As old horses go to the knacker's yard, or old ships to the breakers, so words in their last decay go to swell the enormous list of synonyms for good and bad. And as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language."

(Interestingly, my printing of On stories omits that first sentence, but the Spectator link includes an image of the original printing).

So "condescend" changes from the action of one who is truly higher (e.g. Aragorn) coming down along side of those who are truly lower (e.g. the hobbits), but instead it is a derisive view of the fact that anyone would think themselves higher in the first place.

Later in the essay Lewis talks about motive, and here I would (with fear and trembling) disagree with him. "It is important to notice that the danger to the word Christian comes not from its open enemies, but from its friends. It was not egalitarians, it was officious admires of gentility, who killed the word gentleman." I'd disagree - I think that at least in modern terms (maybe we got here by stages?) it is egalitarians who would most destroy the word gentleman, or villain. If there is no valid distinction of class, words that are based on those distinctions must be meaningless, so they must just mean a sense of approval or disapproval. I think Corey was saying much the same about "condescend" in last week's Exploring LotR. To my (and Corey's) defense in mildly disagreeing with Lewis I would also recruit Lewis. In the preface to Mere Christianity he similarly discusses the fates of the words "gentleman" and "Christian", making many of the same points*, but giving a slightly different motivation for the changing usage of the word "gentleman", here changing the words as an egalitarian would, focused on character traits rather than class distinctions:

"But then there came people who said -- so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully -- 'Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? ...' They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing."

Anyway, back to The Death of Words, and then I'll close an over-long post. I can't leave without including this wonderful sentence from Lewis:

"To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language. ... That is always the trouble about 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."***


*I would point out (and have previously) that the word condescend has retained it's original meaning in religious usage (the "condescension of Christ"), but have to admit that I'm probably more used to hearing that in older hymns. I'd bet that a liturgical Lutheran or high-church Anglican would probably be much more likely to use it and a member of a non-denominational praise-band style church would probably think it sounded very strange.

**I'm assuming the Preface to Mere Christianity was written after the "Death of Words" essay (which was published in 1944). The book was published in 1952, though it was based in part on radio talks given from 1942-44.

***Of course this could be applied to about any debate on Twitter - once you start calling anyone you disagree with a ____ (fascist, communist, etc), you'll need new words to actually talk about those political movements.


Thank you Bruce for posting this. It is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece.

While I see and understand what he's saying, I think Lewis really missed the point with this essay, and we are in danger of doing so as well. Language is flexible and evolving, and always has been. Old words take on new meanings and new words are created that might mean the same thing as an old word whose meaning has evolved. I don't disagree with Lewis that it makes things difficult to describe at times, but to me he comes off as a stuffy Oxford don, essentially whinging about "kids these days". ("In the good old days, concrete and abstract meant what I think they mean!" ;))

One section I noted particularly was his discussion of "Christian", which is a word that carries heavy social, political, and emotional baggage here in the U.S., as almost any religious word does around the world. Politically, there is an endless stream of politicians who proclaim their Christianity and finish practically every paragraph of a speech with "God bless America!" and socially there are many people who attend Christian churches and proclaim themselves Christian without ever looking carefully at what that might really mean. I consider myself areligious, but I also admire greatly the teachings of the philosopher and mystic known as Jesus Christ, and I recognize that there are many Christians around the world who do their best to live according to those teachings. But I really cannot abide the religiosity of certain groups that call themselves Christian, while going out of their way to exemplify the things that Christ himself taught against. This, as I think Lewis is saying, raises a difficult question: how shall I describe myself, when "Christianity" has been so thoroughly coopted by powerful people who see it as a means of exerting control over others? (Which could bring us back around to Tolkien and how he views evil, but I will let that trailhead be for right now).

In the end, obviously I cannot describe myself as Christian but must say "someone who admires the teachings of the philosopher and mystic known as Jesus Christ." But I don't regard that admittedly more verbose description as inherently negative, as Lewis seems to do. I also admire the teachings of the Buddha, and I look even in secular texts for spiritual lessons in how to live a positive and thoughtful life, so describing myself as merely "Christian" wouldn't really cut it.

So I would say that we should not mourn the "death" of words or take a pessimistic view toward their evolution. Words do not die, but rather they change form again and again and again throughout history, in both their sound and their meaning. We must be aware of this continual evolution, and recognize that even a book written just 70 years ago uses words in a sense quite different from what we understand those words to mean today. And when it comes to "condescend", perhaps realizing that we all share equally in our humanity, and that it is literally impossible for one not divine to condescend, in the 19thC sense, is not such a bad thing either.

Lincoln Alpern

Active Member
I think Steve raises some excellent points, and I mostly agree, especially about words and language evolving rather than dying.

As for "all [sharing] equally in our humanity," though, thus rendering a positive connotation to "condescend" obsolete, I'm less sure about that. I mean, yes, in theory we believe all human beings are born equal, but we're hardly an egalitarian society.

In class a few sessions ago, Corey discussed the example of celebrities (movie stars or musical performers or the like), and when people say stuff like they're "really down to earth" in person, what that effectively means is that they're good at being condescending in a positive sense. "They don't give themselves airs" = they can come down to our level. I disagree with Corey, though, that it only applies to celebrities.

Say you're at a party, and you chat with someone for a while, and after that person moves off, your friend tells you excitedly, "Don't you know who that is? She's the deputy governor." Or a high-powered lawyer. Or a major Hollywood producer. Or a circuit court judge. Or a three-star general. Or a senior banking executive. etc. Your reaction is likely to be something along the lines of "Wow, she seemed so normal," which is exactly the kind of thing Corey described.

Or think of it in reverse. I'm guessing most of us here in the forums are not currently homeless; well, suppose you come across a homeless person panhandling. What do you do? You could be a jerk, obviously; or you could give them some money; you could even - if you've got more social courage than I do - try to strike up a conversation. In other words, if you don't want to be a jerk, you can condescend to them in a positive sense, try to meet them at their level. You can also pretend like you and they are basically equal (though this would probably wind up being condescending in the modern sense). But unless you yourself are in similarly dire circumstances, you can't meet them from a place of actual equality.

I think there is still quite a bit of room for a phenomenon which could be called "condescension" in Tolkien's positive sense. I'm not sure why we don't have a word which means that any longer. I have some notions, but I can't seem to articulate them without launching into a political screed, which I don't think this is the place for, so I'll leave it at that.