More than ‘just semantics’

Words have worlds of meaning behind them, and often it seems that words are thrown around too easily without any consideration for their connotations as well as their denotations. I am advocate of precise language: use the best word possible for what you mean, do not settle for synonyms that are left grasping at your intended meaning. For instance, “compassion” may be a synonym of “mercy,” but mercy connotes action, compassion feeling. Another synonym is “pity,” but that connotes condescension.

To some, this is splitting hairs over words that have more or less the same meaning. “Just semantics,” they would say.

It was brought to my attention yesterday that C.S. Lewis insisted upon the archaic spelling of “abhominable” in Prince Caspian, when Edmund brings the challenge of mortal combat to King Miraz. I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers thought Lewis was just keeping up the chivalric atmosphere, or was using a quirky British spelling, and that what he really meant was “abominable.” Yes… and no.

abominable (adj.) – repugnantly hateful; detestable.

abhominable (adj.) – obsolete, from ab homine, or inhuman.

“Ab,” out from, or to be cast out, and “homine,” man/mankind. When High King Peter and King Edmund describe King Miraz’s actions — regicide, usurpation, oppression of the Narnians as well as his own people — they are not merely saying that he has done something detestable. No, his actions have been so counter to the accepted chivalric code that he has effectively made himself an enemy against humanity. He has rejected what it means to be human; he has cast himself out from humankind.

In an increasingly postmodern and “anything goes” Western world, do we have the ability to make such judgements anymore? Do we have a clear sense of what it means to be human, to be a part of the fellowship of humankind? With growing awareness of human rights and social justice (another example of similar things, but with differing shades of meaning), should we not reclaim this word, lest we lose the ability to define certain acts as being truly abhominable?

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2 thoughts on “More than ‘just semantics’

  1. Kelly says:

    All evening at work I know I’m going to be pondering /abominable/ or /abhominable/. Lewis was a genius and his children’s books are not just for children.

    Also I started a new game with you in chess. It is entitled “Ancient Near East.”

    Also I miss you. Why just now do I realize my favorite thing for dinner is conversation? I’ll be on Skype after I get off work (9:30).

    Like

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