The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Part 1: Bulverism

As far as I know, Lewis never used the phrase, “wordsmith.” When it comes to writing, he preferred images of stone, greenery, and song to metaphors of fire and steel. Yet there were times that Lewis turned to the forge to shape just the right word or phrase for his purpose.

It is valuable to pay attention to the words that C.S. Lewis made up, what the 16th century stylist Roger Ascham condemned as “strange and inkhorne[1] tearmes” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 277). Ascham disliked these neologisms because they “make all things darke and harde,” but I find that the perfect new word has a way of bringing immediately to mind the force of the idea. J.R.R. Tolkien’s made-up word, “eucatastrophe,” is perhaps one of the richest neologisms of the 20th century. “Neologism”—literally, “new word”—is itself a term made up for the purpose in the 1770s.

Because Lewis saw himself as a translator of ideas, he did not often make up new words. But he did not dislike neologisms. I doubt it is a coincidence that when describing Alexandre Dumas’ made-up word, demi-monde, he said that Dumas was trying “to name a shadowy region on the fringes of the monde which had had no name before” (Studies in Words, 267). While Ascham thought that newfangled[2] words were dark and hard, Lewis thought Dumas used one to bring light to the shadows.

In literary terms, what shadow-chasing did Lewis attempt by forming new words from the materials at hand? Each week this fall, I will highlight a word or two–or sometimes a small phrase–that Lewis reforged from his own word-hoard to create exactly the verbal tool he wanted. In his essays and letters, Lewis would sometimes coin a word–to borrow the image of the mint that Lewis sometimes used–though occasionally that new word existed obscurely elsewhere in English. Today, we’ll begin with one of Lewis’ more robust neologisms, Bulverism.

Bulverism (bəl-vər-iz-əm)

You may not have heard of Ezekiel Bulver simply because he never existed. In his “biography of an imaginary inventor,” Lewis describes how young Ezekiel’s destiny was sealed when he overheard his parents arguing. His father was certain that two sides of a triangle are together always larger than the third. His mother responded with the tu quoque, “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” Upon this knockdown argument, E. Bulver had an epiphany:

“…there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century (God in the Dock, 273).

This is “Bulverism,” a crucial move by poor debaters, pop psychologists, twitter evangelists, ideologues at large, and new generation politicians. The Bulveristic move is used to ignore the key steps of an argument and strike at the “real” issue: what sort of social moments or psychological factors make me certain the other person must be wrong? “Bulverism” as a phrase never stuck, though it is one of the only of Lewis’ made-up words to have its own Wikipedia entry , perhaps because it clarifies certain kind of logical fallacy. Despite its disappearance from the cultural word-hoard, Lewis was clearly prophetic on this point. We live in a Bulveristic moment of history, confirmed almost every time you hear phrases like “left-wing radical,” “fake news,” or “white male.”

Of course, I am probably just saying this because I’m a man.

[1] This was a new word as a metaphor when Ascham used it. Wycliffe used it in his translation of Ezek 9:11 in the 1380s, but Ascham’s usage here is earlier than the first OED metaphorical usage listing of 1577.

[2] In usage by the late 15th century.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Part 1: Bulverism

  1. Steve says:

    I think I’ve heard a lot of Bulverism recently as people insist that a certain mass murderer must be called a terrorist rather than a lone wolf, not because he is one, but because they desperately want him to be one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bdsprinkle says:

    This sounds like what I know as ad hominem. Attacking the person rather than addressing his argument. Was Bulverism a precursor to this word? I would think not since it is Latin. I wonder if C.S. Lewis was aware of this word?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I’m sure he was (though I can’t immediately think of an example of his using it). It would be worth considering how much Bulverism coincides with ‘argumentum ad hominem’ and in what, if any, ways it is distinct from it. Later in the essay, Lewis says, “All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be made between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called ‘a reason’.” And he goes on to say, “Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A delightful idea for a series, and a good start – thanks!

    Bibliographically, Walter Hooper notes that a shorter version of the essay first appeared in the rubric ‘Notes on the Way’ in the magazine, Time and Tide, vol. XXII (29 March 1941), p. 261, and that the longer version was read to the Socratic Club on 7 February 1944, and then published in The Socratic Digest, No. 2 (June 1944), pp. 16-20. Arend Smilde’s ‘C. S. Lewis’s essays, short stories and other short prose writings as published in collected editions, 1939–2013’ notes the essay’s republications:

    And Joel D. Heck has published an edition of the Socratic Digest (Austin, TX: Concordia UP, 2012).

    I think the essay invites comparison, variously, with parts of The Abolition of Man, Miracles, and the discussion of “the Historical Point of View” in Screwtape Letters 9 and 27.

    Arend Smilde’s notes are well worth reading, too:

    Bulver is a real surname, but (as far as I recall) I have never encountered any discussion of how or why Lewis came to choose it, here. (A quick search encountered a novel by C. Veheyne and Ethel Williamson, The Journal of Henry Bulver (1921) – but nothing more about it.) It would be interesting to know who has taken it up – I know Terry Barker used it in discussion and would not be surprised to find it in his After Acorn (1999), Beyond Bethune (2006) and Continuing Chesterton (2015).


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Irresistible tangent: your use of the word ‘wordsmith’ reminded me of Sue Limb’s thoroughly enjoyable BBC radio series satirical of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and the Lake Poets and associated folk, The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere, which is gallingly unavailable – as is its novelization – I know not why!


  5. L.A. Smith says:

    Fantastic! Love the idea of this series. I’m looking forward to more.

    Bulverism is a fantastic word. Definitely going into my repertoire. We need to call out the bulverism when we see it. And as you say, it’s rather prevalent in this present age.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      My memory of talking about it ‘back in the day’ with Terry Barker (and perhaps Greg and Suzanne Wolfe, among others) was in part with its applicability to ‘reductive’ criticism which sweepingly reduced literary works to authorial biography, and authorial biography to (somebody’s) ‘psychoanalysis’ of the author.


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