But his ideas don’t end with poetry, do they?

No. Barfield had noticed something further about the inner meanings of words. It has to do with the evolving relationship between that sense and the outer meaning.

Just to recap: the outer meaning of a word is its literal or surface meaning. It typically refers to something tangible that exists in the external, physical world. The inner meaning is the poetry, the felt or intangible meaning. It typically refers to something that’s real but implicit.

Take, “outsider”. In everyday use, this word means a person who doesn’t belong to the group. That’s its external meaning. But it also carries an inner meaning, the character of an outsider who may be a loner, a misfit, a genius, a rake. The word carries both senses.

What Barfield noticed is that many words in everyday use today, no longer immediately convey both their inner and outer meanings, though they once did, because the external meaning has become less obvious. You might have to do some work to recover it – sometimes not much work, sometimes quite a lot.

Examples in which you don’t have to do much work include, say, “influence”, meaning affect. It’s relatively quickly recognised as “in-flow” or “flowing in”, which links back to its outer meaning, that referred to the inflow of the astrological quintessence of celestial bodies.

“Understanding” similarly meant “standing under”.

Or there are phrases like “letting off steam” or “going off the rails”, which a moment’s reflection reveals as terms that came from the age of the steam engine. Similarly, to refer to a “tension” between people is to use a metaphor that is drawn from the discovery of electrically charged bodies. People can exhibit an electrostatic-like tension between them, causing metaphorical sparks to fly.

But there’s something else you discover if you play the game. It turns out that the exterior meaning of very many, if not most words has now been almost completely eclipsed.

A fun example is “scruple”. Its meaning now, of a doubt or qualm, is actually only its inner meaning. Originally, in Latin, a scrupus was a jagged stone. Cicero added to that by finding the word’s hidden poetry and punning on it alongside another Latin word, scrupulus, which was a tiny unit of measure. He put the two meanings together, which in time morphed scrupus into scruple, a small niggling worry. The inner meaning has come to dominate and now eclipses the original external meaning entirely.

Here are a few more:

  • “Delirious”, from delirare, which as well as raving also originally meant to go out of the furrow.
  • “Prevaricate”, from the Latin, praevaricari, meant to plough in crooked lines as well as to transgress.
  • “Tribulation”, from tribulare, was to thrash with a tribulum, a type of thresher, as well as to extract payment.
  • “Obligation” from obligare, meant to bind up someone physically as well as to have a bond.
  • Scandalizein and offendere were causing someone to stumble, alongside upsetting them.
  • The list goes on.

  • “Disposition” had an external meaning that referred to the position or pattern of celestial bodies.
  • “Weary” once meant tramping over wet ground.
  • “To learn” was to follow a track.
  • “Bless”, to consecrate with blood, hence the French blessé, or wounded.
  • “Person” first referred to a mask. It took Christianity to transform the word into the inherent quality of being human.
  • “Allure” comes from an old word, “lure”, for calling back birds.
  • “Forte” and “foible”, meaning strong and weak, are old fencing terms referring to different parts of the sword.
  • And so on and so on.

    Barfield noticed further that the shift from outer to inner meanings alone often produces a narrowing of meaning. “Cupidity”, from the god of love, Cupid, now means greed or avarice, which is just a small part of what the Romans imagined you experienced when Cupid drew back his bow. “Eros”, too, the equivalent Greek deity, was associated with all kinds of passion, not only sexual desire. Homer’s warriors step onto the battlefield full of eros.

    All in all, it’s as if people first felt the external world had an inside, too, which was captured in words, though now, we’re inclined to lose touch with it and so, more often than not, feel that interiority belongs to our inner lives alone. The natural world is left seeming relatively mechanical, disenchanted, spiritually dead.

    You could say that this is why we now need poets. They can re-expand the meaning of words, as they release their richness afresh, thereby reinvigorating our experience of life. And there’s a clue in that need which suggests that hunting for the meaning of words is not only a parlour game. It might matter greatly.

    Barfield put this theory together in another book, arguably his masterpiece: Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1957). It’s a multifaceted work, saying a lot about the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, the emergence of Christianity, and also the modern world. These elements are what I pick up in my own book. However, he also addresses the significance of changes in the meaning of words.

    It has to do with this overall direction of travel as words change and narrow in meaning. The evolution is from an outer and inner meaning to an inner meaning alone, with the outer meaning tending to become lost.

    When Barfield started giving talks in America, after the death of C.S. Lewis, he was occasionally challenged with supposed counterexamples, but further philological investigation revealed more examples of the trend. In common words, it rarely, if ever, happens the other way around.

    In fact, he was not the first to note it. In his talks and writings, Barfield often quotes two prominent thinkers who thought about what this feature of words means, too. They are arresting authorities because they are otherwise utterly different in worldview. One is the American transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson; the other, the British utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham.

    Emerson put it like this, in his essay, “Nature”.

    “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from material appearance. Right means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrows. We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought, and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made, is hidden from us in the remote time when language was framed.”

    Jeremy Bentham summed it up in this way, in his Essay on Language:

    “Throughout the whole field of language, parallel to the line of what may be termed the material language, and expressed by the same words, runs a line of what may be termed the immaterial language. Not that to every word that has a material import there belongs also an immaterial one; but that to every word that has an immaterial import, there belongs, or at least did belong, a material one.”

    It’s a remarkable observation. It chimes with Romantic philosophy and Barfield’s sense that words have something crucial to tell us about their soulful nature as well as the spiritual nature of the world in which words are born.