Language and morality

What does language have to do with morality? In a more secular age the connection may not be immediately obvious, but it is a strong one nevertheless, as witnessed by recent debates on the role of language in society and the way it is taught in schools (widely discussed in a range of books on language, culture and politics, such as Crowley 2003, Bex and Watts 1999, Milroy and Milroy 1991).

In the 19th century the link between language and morality was more generally perceived and commonly stated, and it was a significant influence both on the choice of quotations for OED and on the treatment of the words for which quotations were supplied.

This page begins with a sketch of some of the philosophical and historical background to the topic (on which more detailed treatments with further references can be found in Aarsleff 1983 and Finegan 1998). It then looks at how ideas on language and morality were mediated by R. C. Trench, the initiator of OED.

Language: the product of analogy or convention?

The question whether words reflect some ultimate reality in the universe, or instead are the product of convention, was debated at least as early as the fourth century BC, by Plato in the Cratylus, and has been discussed by philosophers and writers on language ever since.1 As every language user can observe during his or her lifetime, words tend to change in meaning as time passes. This need not matter if words have an arbitrary relationship with the things or concepts to which they refer, for in this case change in language can be seen as a form of natural development (or even progress). But if words are linked, for example by their etymology, to some fixed and independent meaning, then the more words diverge from their original form, the more corrupt (so it appears) language becomes.

This latter belief has over centuries exerted an extraordinarily powerful influence on ideas and theories of language. If the first language was given to mankind by revelation – as suggested in the Judaeo-Christian tradition by the story of Adam naming creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible – then it was incumbent on mankind to recover, so far as possible, a language of pre-lapsarian purity. There were many attempts to establish such a language, in which words or signs might unambiguously and unchangeably relate to the things or ideas for which they stand, the best known of which was John Wilkins’s An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668); one hundred-odd years later, Johnson’s Dictionary was compiled in a culture of similar sorts of anxieties about and dissatisfactions with language (see Crystal 2004: chapters 15-16).

In 1786, Horne Tooke’s immensely influential if linguistically mistaken work on language and etymology, Diversions of Purley, developed in engrossing detail the notion that all words, of whatever kind, can be traced back to a handful of basic nouns and verbs relating to fundamental human (often sensory) experience: in other words, that there was an innate correspondence (analogy) between words and the things or ideas they stand for. In the same year, the brilliant linguist William Jones began to advance, through his comparison of Sanskrit with Latin and Greek, the contrary hypothesis that all three languages, together with many other European tongues, derived from a common source no longer existing, subsequently called Indo-European. The implication of Tooke’s theory was creationist: that present-day language is a corrupt descendant of a pure original; the implication of Jones’s theory was evolutionist: that different branches of language have changed and adapted according to their respective environments. Hooke’s claims were dependent on prior assumptions about language, and he ignored or explained away anomalous evidence; Jones’s views were the result of empirical investigation of languages as they existed in recorded and observed sources (see 19th-century scientific method and, for a full account of both scholars, Aarsleff 1983).

R. C. Trench

How does all this relate to dictionaries and to the OED? We have seen that the study of language in England lagged far behind that on the continent: and this was largely because, while European scholars enthusiastically investigated and developed the ideas of Jones and other ‘new philologists’, most English scholars followed Tooke.

R. C. Trench, one of the initiators of OED, enthusiastic moral and linguistic pedagogue, successively professor of divinity (1847), dean of Westminster (1856), and archbishop of Dublin (1864), sat astride these two camps. On the one hand he argued for a comprehensive study of words in their historical context, and saw that Hooke’s etymologies, together with ‘matters more serious still’, were mistaken; on the other he revered Hooke’s work as constituting ‘an epoch in many a student’s intellectual life’ (Trench 1851: Preface, vii). Like Hooke, he used etymologies – whether true or imagined – to trace moral histories and elicit local and universal truths:

Language may be, and indeed is, this ‘fossil poetry‘; but it may be affirmed of it with exactly the same truth that it is fossil ethics, or fossil history. Words quite as often and effectually embody facts of history, or convictions of the moral common sense, as of the imagination or passion of men; even as, so far as that moral sense may be perverted, they will bear witness and keep a record of that perversion….words often contain a witness for great moral truths – God having impressed such a seal of truth upon language, that men are continually uttering deeper things than they know, asserting right principles, it may be asserting them against themselves, in words that to them may seem nothing more than the current coin of society. (Trench 1851: 5, 10)

To illustrate this, Trench reports Bishop Butler’s discussion of the word pastime:

how solemn [is] the testimony which he compels the world, out of its own use of this word, to render against itself – obliging it to own that its amusements and pleasures do not really satisfy the mind and fill it with the sense of an abiding and satisfying joy…they serve only, as this word confesses, to pass away the time, to prevent it from hanging, an intolerable burden, on men’s hands; all which they can do at the best is to prevent men from discovering and attending to their own internal poverty and dissatisfaction and want.

Trench 1851: 10-11

Trench’s lectures are crammed with such examples, all to illustrate his religious thesis:

Is man of a divine birth and stock? coming from God?…We need no more than his language to prove it….has man fallen, and deeply fallen, from the heights of his original creation? We need no more than his language to prove it….It needs no more than to open a dictionary, and to cast our mind thoughtfully down a few columns, and we shall find abundant confirmation of this sadder and sterner estimate of man’s moral and spiritual condition. How else shall we explain this long catalogue of words, having all to do with sin, or with sorrow, or with both?…I open the first letter of the alphabet; what means this ‘Ah,’ this ‘Alas,’ these deep and long-drawn sighs of humanity…’Affliction’, ‘Agony’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Assassin’, ‘Atheist’, ‘Avarice’, and twenty more…

Trench 1851: 30

But of course any reader might instead pick out ‘ahead’, ‘ahold’, ‘aid’, ‘aim’, ‘akin’, ‘alacrity’ (to choose a selection from Richardson’s dictionary) – and ascribe to them positive or at any rate neutral connotations!

Trench continues:

And yet our dictionaries, while they tell us much, yet will not tell us all. How shamefully rich is the language of the vulgar everywhere in words and phrases which are not allowed to find their way into books, yet which live a sinful oral tradition on the lips of men, to set forth that which is unholy and impure.

Trench 1851: 32

What all this amounts to, then, is that ‘Language contains…a faithful…record of the good and of the evil which in times past have been working in the minds and heart of men,’ and thus may be considered ‘a moral barometer, which indicates and permanently marks the rise and fall of a nation’s life. To study a people’s language will be to study them, and to study them at their best advantage; there where they present themselves to us under fewest disguises, most nearly as they are’ (Trench 1851: 59-60; compare similar remarks on our page on Patriotism).

But this presents a problem. Trench was well read both in English literature of the past and in continental philology, and so he understood the need for an historically informed and objectively compiled dictionary. As he himself put it, the ideal dictionary should be an ‘inventory’ of language: ‘It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray….He is an historian of [the language], not a critic’ (Trench 1857: 4-5). His fellow founders of the OED agreed:

The mere merit of a word in an artistic or aesthetic point of view is a consideration, which the Lexicographer cannot for a moment entertain…the literary merit or demerit of any particular writer, like the comparative elegance or inelegance of any given word, is a subject upon which the Lexicographer is bound to be almost indifferent.

quoted K. M. E. Murray 1977: 195

Clearly, however, recording all words dispassionately in this way means that you have to include all the sinful or otherwise inappropriate ones. The ‘shamefully rich…language of the vulgar everywhere in words and phrases’ does and did find its way into print, whether newspapers (routinely reviled by cultural commentators) or books. So should quotations from these works be included in the OED or not?

Many thought not. OED1’s preference for some words and some quotation sources over others, however much this selectiveness may have pleased its original audience, militated against its claim to be a comprehensive inventory of the language. This can be seen time and again in its conscious or unconscious censorship of words relating to morally hazardous areas such as sex, gender and the body, especially given the period over which the Dictionary was first published; see further Mugglestone 2013.

These issues are further explored in our next page on Language and usage.

For more on Trench’s ideas on language, see Crowley (2003: chapter 2) and Momma 2013.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. A translation of this ambiguous text by J. A. H. Murray’s initial antagonist then friend, Benjamin Jowett, can be found on the Internet Classics Archive [accessed 22 August 2019]. On Jowett, see K. M. E. Murray (1977: chapter 12).