S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves. The reader finds a scene drawn in stronger colours, and painted more to the life in his imagination, by the help of words, than by an actual survey of the scene which they describe. In this case the poet seems to get the better of nature: he takes, indeed, the landscape after her, but gives it more vigorous touches, heightens its beauty, and so enlivens the whole piece, that the images which flow from the objects themselves appear weak and faint, in comparison to those that come from the expressions.
There have been used, either barbarous words, of no sense, lest they should disturb the imagination; or words of similitude, that they may second and feed the imagination: and this was ever in heathen charms, as in charms of later times.
Now, as words affect, not by any original power, but by representation, it might be supposed that their influence over the passions should be but light; yet it is quite otherwise; for we find by experience that eloquence and poetry are as capable, nay indeed much more capable, of making deep and lively impressions than any other arts, and even than nature itself in very many cases.
Thirdly; by words we have it in our power to make such combinations as we cannot possibly do otherwise. By this power of combining we are able, by the addition of well-chosen circumstances, to give a new life and force to the simple object. In painting we may represent any line figure we please; but we can never give it those enlivening touches which it may receive from words. To represent an angel in a picture, you can only draw a beautiful young man winged; but what painting can furnish out anything so grand as the addition of one word, The angel of the Lord? It is true, I have here no clear idea; but these words affect the mind more than the sensible image did; which is all I contend for.
Cast forth thy act, thy word, into the ever-living, ever-working universe: it is a seed-grain that cannot die; unnoticed to-day, it will be found flourishing as a banyan grove, perhaps, alas, as a hemlock forest, after a thousand years.
In a language like ours, so many words of which are derived from other languages, there are few modes of instruction more useful or more amusing than that of accustoming young people to seek the etymology or primary meaning of the words they use. There are cases in which more knowledge, of more value, may be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a campaign.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Aids to Reflection, Aphor. 12.
I have first considered whether it be worth while to say a thing at all, before I have taken any trouble to say it well; knowing that words are but air, and that both are capable of much condensation. Words indeed are but the signs and counters of knowledge, and their currency should be strictly regulated by the capital which they represent.
Words, those fickle daughters of the earth, are the creation of a being that is finite, and when applied to explain that which is infinite, they fail; for that which is made surpasses not the maker; nor can that which is immeasurable by our thoughts be measured by our tongues.
Etymology, in a moderate degree, is not only useful in assisting the memory, but highly instructive and pleasing. But if pushed so far as to refer all words to a few primary elements, it loses all its value. It is like pursuing heraldry up to the first pair of mankind.
There is nothing more dangerous than this deluding art which changeth the meaning of words as alchemy doth (or would do) the substance of metals; maketh of anything what it listeth, and bringeth, in the end, all truth to nothing.
I hope I may be allowed to recommend to those whose thoughts have been perhaps employed too anxiously on verbal singularities, not to disturb, upon narrow views, or for minute propriety, the orthography of their fathers. It has been asserted, that for the law to be known, is of more importance than to be right. Change, says Hooker, is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better. There is in constancy and stability a general and lasting advantage, which will always overbalance the slow improvements of gradual correction. Much less ought our written language to comply with the corruptions of oral utterance, or copy that which every variation of time or place makes different from itself, and imitate those changes which will again be changed while imitation is employed in observing them.
This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from an opinion that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by modes of spelling fanciful and erroneous: I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.
Dr. Samuel Johnson: Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language.
In its widest signification, etymology takes cognizance of the changes of the form of words. However, as the etymology which compares the forms of fathers and father is different from the etymology that compares father and pater, we have, of etymology, two sorts: one dealing with the changes of form that words undergo in one and the same language (father, fathers), the other dealing with the changes that words undergo in passing from one language to another (pater, father).
Learn the value of a mans words and expressions, and you know him. Each man has a measure of his own for everything. This he offers you, inadvertently, in his words. He who has a superlative for everything, wants a measure for the great or small.
Words are made to declare something: where they are, by those who pretend to instruct, otherwise used, they conceal indeed something; but that which they conceal is nothing but the ignorance, error, or sophistry of the talker; for there is, in truth, nothing else under them.
The chief end of language, in communication, being to be understood, words serve not for that end when any word does not excite in the hearers the same ideas which it stands for in the mind of the speaker.
Synonyme, in the singular number, hardly admits of an independent definition, for the notion of synonymy implies two correlative words, and therefore, though there are synonymes, there is in strictness no such thing as a synonyme, absolutely taken. Properly defined, synonymes are words of the same language and the same grammatical class, identical in meaning.
There are some so ridiculous as to go a mile out of their way to hook in a fine word: Aut qui non verba rebus aptant, sed res arcessunt, quibus verba conveniant. Quint. i. 8. Who do not fit words to the subject, but seek out for things quite from the purpose, to fit those words they are so enamourd of. And as another says, Qui alicujus verbi decore placentis vocentur ad id, quod non proposuerant scribere. Sen. Ep. 59. Who by their fondness of some fine sounding word are tempted to something they had no intention to treat of. I for my part rather bring in a fine sentence by head and shoulders to fit my purpose than divert my designs to hunt after a sentence. On the contrary, words are to serve, and to follow a mans purpose; and let Gascon come in play where French will not do. I would have things so exceed, and wholly possess, the imagination of him that hears, that he should have something else to do, than to think of words.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. xxv.
Our contest is verbal. I demand what nature is, what pleasure, circle, and substition are? The question is about words, and is answerd accordingly. A stone is a body, but if a man should further urge, and what is body? Substance; and what is substance? and so on, he would drive the respondent to the end of his calepin. We exchange one word for another, and oft times for one less understood. I better know what man is, than I know what animal is, or mortal, or rational. To satisfie one doubt, they pop me in the mouth with three: tis the Hydras head.
Michel de Montaigne: Essays, Cottons 3d ed., ch. cvii.
Why certain words die, and others live on, why certain meanings of words become prominent, so as to cause the absorption of all the other meanings, we have no chance to explain. We must take the work of language as we find it, and in disentangling the curious skein, we must not expect to find one continuous thread, but rest satisfied if we can separate the broken ends, and place them side by side in something like an intelligible order.
I admit that where a foreign word is more euphonious than a native word of the very same signification, its adoption may add to the pleasure of sound, which is by no means to be disregarded in language.
This disposition to shorten our words, by retrenching the vowels, is nothing else but a tendency to lapse into the barbarity of those northern nations from whom we are descended, and whose languages all labour under the same defect.
Often in words contemplated singly there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination, laid up,lessons of infinite worth which we may derive from them, if only attention is awakened to their existence.
Why does the verb monopolize the dignity of being the word? What is there in it which gives it the right to do so? It is because the verb is the animating power, the vital principle, of every sentence, and that without which, either understood or uttered, no sentence can exist.
When a word has been used in two or three senses, and has made a great inroad for error, drop one or two of those senses, and leave it only one remaining, and affix the other senses or ideas to other words.
Etymology has been so unsuccessful in establishing clear and definite principles, or so unfortunate in their application, that many persons regard it as bearing the same relation to grammar as astrology does to astronomy, alchemy to chemistry, or perpetual motion to mechanics.
The word synonyme is, in fact, a misnomer, Literally, it implies an exact coincidence of meaning in two or more words, in which case there would be no room for discussion; but it is generally applied to words which would be more correctly termed pseudo-synonymes, i.e. words having a shade of difference, yet with a sufficient resemblance of meaning to make them liable to be confounded together: and it is in the number and variety of these that (as the Abbé Girard well remarks) the richness of a language consists.