Owen Barfield's "History in English Words" – The Imaginative Conservative

Throughout “History in English Words,” Owen Barfield discusses the influences of every possible cultural encounter on the English language. Language, he demonstrates, never stops in its evolution, moving from one point, one thought, one epoch to another, always shifting, always changing, but also always honoring.
An extraordinary man by any measure, Owen Barfield (1898-1997), one of the least known of the Inklings, published his first book, History in English Words, in 1926, at the very young age of 27 or 28. One of the finest books I’ve ever read, History in English Words is an in-depth examination of the history of Western civilization as seen through the eyes of English speakers, measuring a significant number of words through their individual journeys and evolutions.
In the common words we use every day the souls of past races, the thoughts and feelings of individual men stand around us, not dead, but frozen into their attitudes likes the courtiers in the garden of the Sleeping Beauty. The more common a word is and the simpler its meaning, the bolder very likely is the original thought which it contains and the more intense the intellectual or poetic efforts which went to its making (p. 18).
| Owen Barfield's "History in English Words" - The Imaginative ConservativePhilology, the author notes, is only a hundred years old at the point of his writing, and much of the philology that exists has been advanced by non-professionals, especially through the recording of myths and faery tales. Barfield, though, seems to have especially benefited from the then-recent publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, itself a work of genius (Tolkien had worked on the dictionary for several years).
Throughout History in English Words, Barfield discusses the influences of every possible cultural encounter on the English language—from Sanskrit to Celtic to Latin (especially through the Catholic evangelists) to Danish to Dutch (navigation terms, especially). “The study of comparative grammar suggests rather that they spread outwards from their centre in a series of little rills, each one, as it flowed, either pushing the rill in front of it a stage farther on, or flowing through it and passing beyond” (pg. 32).
We learn, for example some fascinating historical and cultural things, such as: the English word “to lie” most likely originating in the corruption of the name of the Norse trickster god, Loki; that “witan,” the Old English term for council or Congress also means “to know”; that cobalt and nickel were the mining names for demons; that “person” was an Etruscan word denoting the mask one wears; that “law” and “right” were once synonyms; that the term “army” never existed until the English Civil War as no such thing had ever existed; that the term “faery” probably comes from the Roman Stoics, who loved not only fantasy but the notion of fate as well; or that “enthusiasm” means to be possessed by the divine.
Barfield also recognizes the moments of historical change and the epochs—in particular, the ones that profoundly affected the language. Thus, the advent of Christianity, the discovery of the New World, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the rise of banking, the Scientific Revolution, and the Romantic Movement, each becoming a thing of magnificence when it comes to shaping and honing the English language.
Its genius seems to have lain not so much in originality as in the snapping up of unconsidered trifles; and where it has excelled all other languages of Europe, possibly of the world, is in the grace with which it has hitherto digested these particles of foreign matter and turned them into its own life’s blood. Historically, the English language is a muddle; actually it is a beautiful, personal, and highly sensitive creature (p. 82).
Along the way, Barfield also offers wisdom that should not be possible for such a young man. He is especially good when discussing the role that theology, mythology, and philosophy play in the creation and evolution of languages. He notes, for example, that the English word for God meant, roughly, sky. “As far back as we can trace them, the Sanskrit word ‘dyaus,’ the Greek ‘zeus” (accusative ‘dia’), and the Teutonic “tiu” were all used in contexts where we should use the word sky,” Barfield writes, “but the same words were also used to mean God, the Supreme Being, the Father of all other gods.” (p. 88-89).
In perhaps his best chapter, “myth,” Barfield explains that many of our conceptions of the heroic and the virtuous come, naturally enough, from our faith in things beyond our sight. Hero, to offer one example, meant in its origin a being who was half-man and half-god. The Greek language, Barfield continues, provided us not only with words but with rich meanings of our very selves while never “restricting our outlook” (p. 87).
Most impressively, though, Barfield argues that all of our language is the product of myth itself. Especially considering his relationship to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, he is well worth quoting at length on this issue.
As to the number of words which are indirectly descended from prehistorical religious feeling, it is not possible to count them. We can only say that the farther back language as a whole is traced, the more poetical and animated do its sources appear, until it seems at last to dissolve into a kind of mist of myth. The beneficence or malignance—what may be called the soul-qualities—of natural phenomena, such as clouds or plants or animals, make a more vivid impression at this time than their outer shapes and appearances. Words themselves are felt to be alive and to exert a magical influence. But, as the period which has elapsed since the beginning of the Aryan [western] culture is only a tiny fragment of the whole epoch during which man has been able to speak, it is only in glimpses that we can perceive this; in a word here and a word there we trace but the final stages of a vast, age-long metamorphosis from the kind of outlook which we loosely describe as ‘mythological’ to the kind which we may describe equally loosely as ‘intellectual thought’. To comprehend the process fully, we must build up the rest of it in the imagination, just as, from seeing a foot of cliff crumble away at Dover, we may set wings to time and call up the immemorial formation of the English Channel. (pp. 87-88)
As a culture, we English-speaking peoples are the result, essentially, of the Teutons (and their gods, Odin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday), Freya (Friday)) and the Greek-Latin classical world of Christianity. Ironically, Barfield contends, Christian missionaries unwittingly displaced the pagan mythology of the Teutons with their own baptized Classical mythology. Even the very word, mythology, originally meant a narrative story or speech. “We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that, as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.” (pg. 189)
| Owen Barfield's "History in English Words" - The Imaginative ConservativeBarfield also brilliantly analyzes the roots of Christianity, noting vitally that Christianity and much of its thought came from the Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria, which represented the melding of Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew cultures (especially through figures such as Philo) and came from a mixing of the Greek Septuagint and the later Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. Again, the author reminds us, words such as fantasy and Logos have their own origins in Stoicism, thus baptized by the Christians and given their full meaning. And, yet, the Christians did more than baptize. While the pagans had often spoken in the language of the hidden (Gnosticism, in particular), Christianity opened the mysteries to all.
With the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, Barfield argues, man became aware not only of his individual self but also of the forces of historical change. “Though these two developments—the birth of an historical sense and the birth of our modern self-consciousness,” Barfield maintains, “may seem at first sight to have little connection with one another, yet it is not difficult, on further consideration, to perceive that they are both connected with that other and larger process which has already been pointed to as the story told by the history of the Aryan languages as a whole” (p. 171). All of this, however, is essential to human awareness. “It is only when that detachment has progressed to a certain point that man becomes able to observe the changes which constitute history, so it is only as he begins to observe them that he becomes fully conscious of himself—the observer” (p. 172).
Barfield concludes the book with his own—quite stunning—thoughts on “imagination.” He proposes that man is never fully man until he can see himself in the Image of God as a creator. Once recognized, the whole understanding of humanity and the human person changed.
This word, too, with its derivative creative, is used far too often and too lightly1 now to allow us to easily perceive its importance. ‘Creare’ was one of those old Latin words which had been impregnated through the Septuagint and the Vulgate with Hebraic and Christian associations; its constant use in ecclesiastical Latin had saturated it with the special meaning of creating, in divine fashion, out of nothing, as opposed to the merely human making, which signified the rearrangement of matter already created, or the imitation of ‘creatures’. The application of such a word to human activities seems to mark a pronounced change in our attitude towards ourselves, and it is not surprising that, in the course of its career, the new use should have met with some opposition on the grounds of blasphemy. (pg. 207)
Never quite content with merely stating the obvious, the 20-something Barfield had to end his book with yet another profound thought:
In tracing the semantic history of important words like these, we must not forget that nine-tenths of the words comprising the vocabulary of a civilized nation are never used by more than at most one-tenth of the population; while of the remaining tithe nine-tenths of those who use them are commonly aware of about one-tenth of their meanings. Nevertheless it is just by following those meanings to the high-water mark which they have reached in a few eager minds that we can observe what may fairly be called changes in the general consciousness. It is true that the new meanings must filter through a graduated hierarchy of imaginative literature, literary journalism, reviews, sermons, journalism, popular novels, advertisements, radio, and cinema captions before what is left of them reaches the general public; but the amount that is left, and the spell which is accordingly exerted on the many, depends on how far they have first been carried by the few. (pp. 218-219).
Language, it seems, never stops in its evolution, moving from one point, one thought, one epoch to another, always shifting, always changing, but also always honoring.
Author’s note: I first purchased this book on August 2, 2003, at Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas. (Eighth Day Books is one of my all-time favorite bookstores). I didn’t, however, read this book until July 2022. Shame on me. But, regardless, thank God I finally read it. It moved me considerably, and I recommend it unreservedly to all readers of The Imaginative Conservative.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.
All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.
It is good to see Owen Barfield getting some of the recognition he deserves. This good friend of C.S. Lewis and disciple of Rudolf Steiner has a lot to teach. His book “Saving the Appearances” is a must.
Caryl, I’m completely in agreement. The man was truly amazing.
I have no proof, but I speculate that Barfield was an influence on Orwell’s work. Learning and using a new word is, in itself, a new thought and flex of the intellect.
Harry, as far as I know, there was no formal connection, but, of course, the world of English writers was relatively small, and, frankly, everyone knew everyone, even if only by reputation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Orwell had been influenced by Barfield. Of course, Lewis and Orwell went after each other. . .
I am intrigued by Barfield but put off by his devotion to Rudolf Steiner. Should I be? I find Steiner’s esoteric visions and “Christian Theosophy” ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst. I would very much like to hear about his influence from someone who knows Barfield’s thought better. Of course, I do see that at the time Steiner’s ideas seemed more vital and possible than they do now (at least to me!) but I find the influence troubling.
Gail, I share your skepticism. To rectify this, I read three books by Steiner. I think he’s even weirder than before, but Barfield did come to orthodox Christianity (mostly because of the influence of his wife) in the very early 1950s–becoming a full member of the Church of England and always very appreciative of the Catholic Church. My thought is that Barfield “baptized” Steiner’s ideas.
Thank you for any and all the book recommendations that you put in your articles. One that I remember and am grateful for is Virgil: Father of the West, which you published as a .pdf. I printed it out and bound it, as best I could, and refer to it many times. Thanks again.
Gloria, I’m pretty sure I violated lots of copyright laws on that one!!!! Glad to share the beauty, though. Yours, Brad

The Imaginative Conservative is sponsored by The Free Enterprise Institute (a U.S. 501(c)3 tax exempt organization). Your donation to the Institute in support of The Imaginative Conservative is tax deductible to the extent allowed by law. (Gifts may be made online or by check mailed to the Institute at 9600 Long Point Rd., Suite 300, Houston, TX, 77055.)


Leave a Comment