What is your favorite C.S. Lewis book?
Most people will name one of the novels or the shorter religious fictions or his personal writings or Christian apologetic works. But there are other categories: the poetry, the literary criticism, and scholarly writings. Lewis was an English professor after all.
One of Lewis’ most overlooked books even in that overlooked scholarly category is Studies in Words, which traces the semantic histories of several of the shiftiest words and phrases in English: nature, free, sense, simple, life, world, etc. As one who keeps my American Heritage Dictionary close at hand and the OED on my bookmarks toolbar, I have found this book a great delight and a great help to understanding how English words works. It might not move me or challenge me the same way his novels do, but it’s earned a place in my Lewis canon.
In the spirit of Lewis’ book, if not its method or erudition, I’d like to offer a brief study in one of those common words that we usually take for granted: keep.
In English, it’s the 307th most common word, 156th most common lemma (or base word form, so including “kept” and “keeping”), and 35th most common verb.
The OED gives a whopping 41 definitions for the verb with synonyms including seize, observe, hold in custody, retain, care, guard, hide, possess, obey, carry on, and maintain. I think my favorite definition is “to remain or stay for the time (in a particular place or spot),” or it might be “to have habitually in stock or on sale” or perhaps the most recent definition, 1586’s “to last without spoiling.” And that 41 doesn’t count the dozens of phrasal verbs like keep away, keep up, keep down, keep together, keep at, keep to.
In 2005, the OED added “to keep it real,” dating its literary usage back to 1975.
Even more interesting is the word’s lack of cognates. Keep is etymologically related to no other word in any other language. Cépan shows up in written Old English in about 1000, already carrying several meanings from its uncertain oral origins. I’d have guessed that it was related to coop or Dutch kuip (barrel) or, upon further research, the archaic kipe (basket). There is question over whether these words are descended from, or otherwise related to, the Latin cōpa (cask).
The real mystique of the word for me comes from how easily it is combined with other words, how it takes on different senses based on the verbal company it keeps, so to speak. You can keep an eye on something, keep to yourself, keep kosher, keep out, keep it up, play keep-away, “keep looking up,” have a keepsake, or keep on keepin’ on.
What do you think when you hear the word “keeper?” A soccer goalie? A 15-inch walleye, 14-inch bass, or similarly sufficiently sized fish? Promisekeepers, housekeepers, or finders-keepers? It’s great if your romantic partner is a “keeper.” (A kept-woman or kept-man, not so much.) Keeper is the third most popular menstrual cup brand on the market.
Whereas Lewis, like the OED, went to classical, medieval, and early modern texts to trace a word’s history, I thought it would be interesting, in the age of Big Data, to get a snapshot of the word according the internet. For example, trace its historical relative usage using Google Books NGram Viewer. Type “keep” into any search field: what does it auto-complete to give as the first result?
- Google: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”
- Wikipedia: “keep,” as in the castle tower, followed by “Keepmoat Stadium” in Doncaster, England
- YouTube: “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer
- My iTunes: “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire, followed by “Keep on the Sunny Side,” 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up,” “It Keeps You Runnin’,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Can’t Keep It In,” etc.
- Google Image: Variations on the classic WWII-era British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.
When I think of the word keep, I invariably think of many Biblical phrasings. “The Lord bless you and keep you.” “Honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
The Biblical Hebrew word shamar (שָׁמַר), often translated as “keep,” is also fascinating and appears 469 times in the Bible. It’s the root of the phrase “Shomer Shabbos”—one who keeps the Sabbath—which I learned about from John Goodman’s character Walter in The Big Lebowski.
Two sections of Scripture on keeping are worth pointing out in particular.
Shamar first appears in Genesis 2:15, along with abad (serve), as one of the two human vocations regarding the garden of Eden: “dress it and keep it” (KJV), “work it and take care of it” (NIV), “cultivate it and keep it” (NASB), “till it and watch it” (Robert Alter). A more literal rendering might be “serve it and preserve it,” a far cry from how humans treat whatever garden we have today. Cain, the farmer, literally “serves the earth” in Genesis 4:2.
An angel with a flaming sword is placed to guard or “keep the way” to the tree of life after the humans are expelled from the garden (Genesis 3:24).
The third Biblical instance of shamar is Cain’s famous rhetorical question to God in Genesis 4:9 after murdering his brother Abel: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He implies “no,” but the clear implication is that yes, he is. Due to the close association of the ground (adamah) to Abel’s blood (dam) in this passage, I wonder if this hearkens back to Genesis 2:15 in which humans (adam) are placed in the garden specifically to “keep” it. This could imply a brotherly (if not also motherly) relationship of the earth to humanity; we are its keeper, its protector, yet humanity has the attitude, not just of denying its vocation, but of Big-Brother-murder toward the earth. Exile, curse, and alienation result.
The word’s fourth appearance is a refiguring of the original human task: in Genesis 17, Abraham is called to keep covenant with God.
A second Scriptural passage that uses shamar to wonderful effect is Psalm 121, a psalm of great assurance and comfort. The word appears six times in the poem’s eight short lines, three times in the final two lines:
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth, and even for evermore.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”
Thanks, Robert, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I’m also happy to discover I’m not the only one who looks up the definitions of words I already know for the joy of discovering its nuances.