History in English Words (1926) was Barfield’s first book length attempt to articulate his ideas about words, and to see how far his intuition about their active nature could really take him.
In the book, he treats them like fossils. Much as the petrified remains of skeletons and shells tell biologists about the evolution of plants and animals, so the old meanings of words, preserved in the bouncing echoes of their historical use, can tell philologists about the evolution of the human minds that deployed them.
At one level, History in English Words is, therefore, an etymological compendium. It retells the stories of hundreds of words that were heard as the British islands were invaded from abroad and as its people’s embraced cultural changes. It makes for a fascinating read, particularly if you love trivia.
But at another level, the book is a theory of knowledge and a history of the mind. “Words may be made to disgorge the past,” Barfield explains, to show the twists and turns of the evolution of our consciousness. Like fossils buried in the strata of rock, they reveal “a change not only in the ideas people have formed about the world, but a change in the very world they experience.”
It is a bold thesis, a big idea. W.H Auden wrote an enthusiastic forward, arguing it “must be made required reading in all schools.”