Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886) wrote a wise book on The Study of Words in 1851. Trench is excited about words, and keen to spread that excitement to his readers. “Words are living powers, are the vesture, yea, even the body, which thoughts weave for themselves,” he says on the first page of this long love-letter to words. The words we use so easily are in fact “fossil poetry” condensing and recording centuries-old inspirations of insight. “Many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it. Examine it, and it will be found to rest on some deep analogy of things natural and things spiritual.”
Though Trench invites his readers to open their eyes to all that is lurking in words, he also points out that words hold their meanings whether we know it or not, and often our own words are wiser than we their users. In fact, “words often contain a witness for great moral truths –God having pressed such a seal of truth upon language, that men are continually uttering deeper things than they know, asserting mighty principles, it may be asserting them against themselves, in words that to them may seem nothing more than the current coin of society.”
How do our words bear witness against us? Trench cites the word “pastime,” which he thinks gives away the whole theology of time and human activity latent in this word’s use.
To what grand moral purposes Bishop Butler turns the word ‘pastime;’ how solemn the testimony, which he compels the world, out of its own use of this word, to render against itself –obliging it to own that its amusements and pleasures do not really satisfy the mind and fill it with the sense of an abiding and satisfying joy: they are only ‘pastime’; they serve only, as this word confesses, to pass away the time, to prevent it from hanging, an intolerable burden, on men’s hands; all which they can do at the best is to prevent men from discovering and attending to their own internal poverty and dissatisfaction and want. He might have added that here is the same acknowledgement int he word ‘diversion,’ which means no more than that which diverts or turns us aside from ourselves, and in this way helps us to forget ourselves for a little. And thus it would appear that, even according to the world’s own confession, all which it proposes is –not to make us happy, but a little to prevent us from remembering that we are unhappy, to pass away our time, to divert us from ourselves. While, on the other hand, we declare that the good which will really fill our souls and satisfy them to the uttermost, is not in us, but without us and above us, in the words which we use to set forth any transcending delight. Take three or four of these words –‘transport,’ ‘rapture,’ ‘ravishment,’ ‘ecstasy,’ — ‘transport, that which carries us, as ‘rapture,’ or ‘ravishment,’ that which snatches us out of and above ourselves; and ‘ecstasy’ is very nearly the same, only drawn from the Greek.
Indeed! I would tell you what I think of that, but now I’m afraid that whatever I say may contain words wiser than the writer.