We all know C.S. Lewis as the Narnian, but behind the children’s work was his experience as a teacher of English literature, a writer about the history of literary movements, and a tinker in other forms of fiction. In that tinkering, and in his letters and essays, he would sometimes create new turns of phrase when it was needed. This is the seventh in the series on words that C.S. Lewis coined.
Click here for interactive chart.
Even when Lewis’ made-up words leave a sour taste in our mouths, they still speak to our world in interesting ways. Lewis invents the word “viricidal” in a Nov 27th, 1955 letter to author Dorothy L. Sayers. It should not be confused with words for a virus-killing agent that many hoped would emerge in the wake of the Spanish Flu after WWI. The Latin root is not virus but viri, for men (as in male or husband, not people or humanity), though the older Latin sense of virus as “slime” or “sappy poison” is kind of interesting in this case.
Speaking outside of the medical world–but of a phenomenon that is no less viral–viricides would be “man-hating” or “men-murdering” people. In his letter to Sayers, Lewis actually makes the comment about his father, whom he had caricatured in his memoir, Surprised by Joy. Despite marrying a woman of equal or greater intelligence whom he adored—a woman who received a strong degree in Victorian-era Ireland–Albert Lewis often spoke down to young women. Lewis, who argued that children’s writers should face their audience man to man, not adult to child–found his father’s pedantic attitude as problematic as when adults take on a condescending tone with schoolchildren.
In Lewis’ mind, this culture of misogyny wasn’t innocent. Lewis quips to Sayers,
“It explains not only why some women grew up vapid but also why others grew up almost (if we may coin the word) viricidal.”
Lewis suspected that his father’s sexist attitude–shared by more than a few men of his age, no doubt–was not merely condescending and pedantic, but disrupted the normal patterns of social education and community for young women. The result included at least three pathways:
- Women who have no response to men like Papy Lewis; i.e., the “many” inferred by Lewis’ “some” victims of his father’s approach.
- Women who grow up “vapid,” apparently stepping out of intellectual life altogether.
- Women who grow up with antagonism to men.
If it is pedantic men that created a subculture of vapid women, I would like to know what has created a generation of vapid young men that sits before us, flat and uninterested and terrifyingly incurious (a generation of which I am a part). I don’t think it was condescension, so I wonder if Lewis’ experience here might be too narrow to judge what anesthetizes a generation.
But it is hard to deny, especially now in our #MeToo moment of culture, that the way we speak about women is not innocent. For every Weinsteinian monster, there is an entire system of male dominance fostered by jokes, stereotypes, and expectations in our own little circles, as well as objectification and sexism in all our popular culture. If this year’s Grammy nominations teach us anything, it is that there is a street-battle in play about how women and sex are portrayed in lyrics and videos. With important exceptions, pop music is dominated by women fusing their beauty with musical expression or men reducing women to objects of utility.
I think the recent revelations about powerful men in Hollywood (Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby) and Politics (Al Franken, Roy Moore, and President Trump) show that this is more than mere misogyny or old school attitudes: I think it demonstrates that our most powerful spaces are ruled by phallocrats who organize their spheres according to what gives them a rise. But there is no doubt to me that Lewis is right that our attitude toward girls threatens to narrow their experiences as women.
Where did this comment come from? We don’t have the letter from Sayers that prompted Lewis to coin the term “viricidal,” but it may have come from Sayers’ comment in an Aug 8th, 1955 letter that Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of Narnia were at times too effeminate for her taste. It certainly came from a lost critique Sayers gave of Surprised by Joy—historians of both Sayers and Lewis would wish this letter was extent. Her response to another piece, Lewis’ “On Science Fiction,” may partially explain the context.
Dorothy L. Sayers—a figure of importance in feminist history—seems to have left Lewis’ argument about misogyny-produced misandry without comment. She did go on to tackle the fascinating relationship of realism and fantastic invention–both in memoir writing and in fantasy writing, using Surprised by Joy and The Lord of the Rings as examples. She also bemoans in that Dec 12th, 1955 letter to Lewis that The Last Battle wouldn’t be published until March 1956, begrudging the delayed pleasure. And we must remember that this exchange began Lewis’ letter of praise to Sayers over her translation of Dante‘s Purgatorio–the last translation she would complete on her own. In the end, it seems that Sayers did manage to create a “Mutual Admiration Society” that fits its name, this time by letters and with a comparable intellect and pen-skill, namely C.S. Lewis. Careful reading of her correspondence with Lewis, though, shows that she is not afraid to critique what she sees as problematic.
In any case, this nonce word didn’t catch on. The chart above is probably capturing mostly the medical cases of viricide and virucide. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include an entry on “viricidal” in the sense of man-killing or husband-killing, except as a single use of “viricide”–“For barbarous viricide condemn’d to hell”–in an improvised translation in the mid-1700s.
What is telling about why it hasn’t caught, though, is what I have left off the chart. There are definitely cases of androcide or viricide in history during times of war, but the cases of the murder of women and girls exceed all–whether in the case of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, or in sex-selective abortion and infanticide in China, or at just about any time in history.
And on a metaphorical level, it is evident today even with all the powerful women in our world, that women-murdering domains still rule our most powerful spaces. If I include “misogyny” on the Ngram chart above, it dwarfs all the other word occurrences so that they almost become a single line. Lewis did not have the full story, and he was probably too won over by strong, intelligent women like his mother, poet Ruth Pitter, sparring partner Elizabeth Anscombe, his wife Joy Davidman, and Dorothy Sayers herself, who had the audacity to write the essay, “Are Women Human?” But his instinct is right: the expectations that men have of girls will serve to expand or limit their potential. Even as the greatest of emerging artists, writers, teachers, managers, and scholars today are women, revelations in Washington, New York, and Hollywood should keep us aware of stories that don’t always go well.
The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up