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What Did Nietzsche Mean when He Wrote

‘Everywhere Language is Sick’?

Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.

C. S. Lewis (from Till We Have Faces, 1956)

Metaphor, the life of language, can be the death of meaning. It should be used in moderation, like vodka. Writers drunk on metaphor can forget they are conveying information and ideas . . . Whatever trouble metaphors may cause us, we can’t get around them. Our language is made from metaphors. As H.W. Fowler says in Modern English Usage, words we imagine to be literal are actually dead metaphors; for instance, examine comes from a Latin word for part of a scale, because when we judge or examine something we weigh it. The arm of a chair, the foot of a hill—these metaphors are built into the language. More obvious metaphors are almost equally necessary. Could we do without the hot temper and the cold stare, the dead duck and the slashed budget? Still, there are writers who would be improved by a nearly total ban on metaphors.

Robert Fulford

We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical.

C. S. Lewis

Whenever a man says that he cannot explain what he means, and that he hates argument, that his enemy is misrepresenting him, but he cannot explain how; that man is a true sage, and has seen into the heart of the real nature of language. Whenever a man refuses to be caught by some dilemma about reason and passion, or about reason and faith, or about fate and free-will, he has seen the truth. Whenever a man declines to be cornered as an egotist, or an altruist, or any such modern monster, he has seen the truth. For the truth is that language is not a scientific thing at all, but wholly an artistic thing, a thing invented by hunters, and killers, and such artists long before science was dreamed of. The truth is simply that—that the tongue is not a reliable instrument, like a theodolite or a camera. The tongue is most truly an unruly member, as the wise saint has called it, a thing poetic and dangerous like music or fire.

G. K. Chesterton

Words, as a tartar’s bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert the judgement.

Francis Bacon

Any historical movement of decadence always creates insensibility to decadence. In such ages the general habit with intellectuals is to refuse to face all realities and to impose a pattern of words on all reality. This disease is universal in the world today. Words are being employed to extinguish life. The intellectual world is like a gigantic home for garrulous old men, who never mean what they say.

Nirad C. Chaudhuri

In its ambitious reach for an increased power of generalization and abstraction language has suffered a proportional loss in vividness, concreteness, and direct correspondence with our experience.

David Cayley

Language is a living thing and words are bound to throw out new senses as a tree throws out new branches. It is not wholly a disadvantage, since in the act of disentangling these senses we learn a great deal about the things involved which we might otherwise have overlooked. What is disastrous is that any word should change its sense during a discussion without our being aware of the change.

C. S. Lewis

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “who is to be master. That is all.”

Lewis Carroll

The faith that writing could give unambiguous expression to ideas is one of the keystones of the modern era. Texts, so long as they were written soberly and read sensitively, were taken as stable centres of meaning. It is now an firm article of post-modern belief that texts are inherently inexhaustible, and therefore inevitably subject to conflicting interpretations.

David Cayley

Language has everywhere become a power in its own right.


Thoughts about Words & Language

A lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood clashes with an aversion to being understood too well.

Joseph Lelyveld

When one has no design but to speak plain truth, he may say a great deal in a very narrow compass.

Richard Steele

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

George Orwell

A writer’s form of expression may seem quite clear to him, yet obscure to the reader. Why? Because the reader is advancing from language to thought, the writer from thought to language.


John Locke called words ‘a perfect cheat.’

All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The most important things are always said by signs. If people do not understand signs they will never understand words.

G. K. Chesterton

Direct and simple language always has some force behind it.

Northrop Frye

Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and the old words best of all.

Winston Churchill

Fundamentalism is the implicit belief that language is cut and dried, and that reality is cut and dried to match.

Reality is less vague and more definite than language. But because language is closer to us in the sense that it’s a tool we continually use to explore reality, it’s often language that seems more definite. This oversight, which often leads to a turning away from the world to clutch blindly at the word, is the essence of fundamentalism.

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.

George Orwell

Language is the main instrument of man’s refusal to accept the world as it is.

George Steiner

In all pointed sentences some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.

Samuel Johnson

There is an accuracy that defeats itself by the overemphasis of details. I often say that one must permit oneself, and quite advisedly and deliberately, a certain margin of misstatement.

Benjamin N. Cardozo

J. C. Carothers, in a 1959 article entitled Culture, Psychiatry and the Written Word, maintained that the ear, not the eye, was the main receptive organ of the mind, that thinking and behavior were governed by the power of words.

The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.

Northrop Frye

Language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me, and everybody.

Thomas Ernest Hulme

In the naming of things one must go with the crowd.


Language is not an infallible guide, but it contains, with all its defects, a good deal of stored insight and experience. If you begin by flouting it, it has a way of avenging itself later on.

C. S. Lewis

In natural, historical human speech there is something which we cannot manipulate at will as we can things and tools which we have made—something which we have no right to deal with arbitrarily.

Josef Pieper

Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words they understand the ideas they stand for.

John Henry Newman

Just as it’s easy to confuse thinking with habitual associations of language, so it’s easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words.

Northrop Frye

The more I think about language the more it amazes me that people ever understand each other.

Kurt Gödel

People don’t hear what you say; they interpret what you say.

The native language takes precedence over every other subject of study. Nothing else can compare with it in usefulness.

Northrop Frye

Very few sentences can withstand analytical criticism because language is not a logical or a scientific system.

The worship of texts may be destroying literacy and not preserving it. There must be a proper balance between written and spoken forms of language.

When you say that the earth is round, do you mean it? No, you don’t mean it, even though it’s true. In fact, most of the sentences we regard as true reflect facts and opinions that are much more complicated than the explicit meaning of the sentence.

Few sentences say exactly what they mean. Can the sun, for example, be said truly to rise or set, or is there any exact meaning in the phrase, “Done to a turn” as applied to omelettes? The simple answer is yes. But a more rigorous answer would be: Sentences don’t mean what they say: they mean what they mean: and what they mean can only be grasped by the imagination.

Words are not merely signs, but things with a mysterious life of their own which can be controlled and released by placing them in certain relationships with other words.

Marshall McLuhan

In ordinary speech we are all bad poets. We think of things as up or down, for example, so habitually that we often forget that they are just metaphors.

Northrop Frye

Words are magical: words are. The word “tree” is not merely a counter or a pointer: it exists as an object, in all the analogical splendour of being, just as the tree itself exists.

Hugh Kenner

Language is not the clothing of ideas but rather the substance.

Robert Fulford

Words are but the sign of ideas.

Samuel Johnson

Words are the physicians to a mind diseased.


A well-chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders, and may be used as much for prevention as cure.

Robert Graves

Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make clearer.

Joseph Joubert

Ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words. The operation of thinking is the practice of articulating ideas until they are in the right words.

Northrop Frye

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