Question for the Week: Have We Literally Gone Too Far?

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In this new series of posts, which may go on for eternity, I intend to pose questions that might elicit that most unusual of human activities: thought! Oh no: surely I’m not expecting people to employ their most hungry organ and engage in the one process unique to the species? I’m afraid so.

These posts won’t necessarily represent my ideas or opinions, they’ll simply raise questions on many different topics in the hope of generating discussion, engaging imagination or simply making readers question beliefs, opinions and attitudes. After all, I’m a writer, and the essence of writing lies in asking questions.

Relatively recently (actually, in 2011), the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, that bastion of our precious language, decided that common usage had rendered the word ‘literally’ to now mean ‘figuratively’. As a result, they gave this meaning official blessing. I question the wisdom of this move.

My Roget’s Thesaurus, the original and best of such works, provides no similes for ‘literally, and the only ones it supplies for ‘literal’ are to do with linguistics and the mechanics of writing. And the SOED I use as my language source considers that ‘literally’ means ‘so as to represent the very words of the original’, though it does begin to bow to common usage by adding that it may be used colloquially as a means of exaggeration.

Language is, of course, organic. It changes and morphs with usage so that words can develop to mean the exact opposite of their original intent. Does such change come without consequences?

Literally can now mean figuratively, so what do we use for the original and ‘literal’ meaning of literally? Truly? Accurately? As defined? Some other simile? And when those become victims of ignorance, what then? Do we really want the ignorant and careless to guide the development of our language? I know; it’s happened throughout history. Language changes; get over it. But change now happens so rapidly that it is difficult to keep pace. The internet and online conversation has introduced this rapid change, and it is unlikely to stop now.

What will happen when much of the vocabulary now current no longer has any real meaning? If we let ignorance lead the way, where will we be in a few years, and how will readers ever understand the nuances and subtleties of older and now current literature?

Is literally a step too far? And, if it is, what can we do about it?

How did we let it happen? Because those who should know better allowed the ignorant to get away with it due to a fear of appearing pedantic. We could fight back. We could be pedantic. We could become proud pedants, and retain the meaning of those words that matter for communication. For, without appropriate meanings for words, how will we ever communicate adequately?

We don’t have to accept it. How can we prevent inappropriate change? We could laugh at it. Ridicule it. Make it embarrassing for people to spread the wrong sort of changes, to misuse the language. It may be the only way to preserve meaning.

So what are your feelings and thoughts about the changes in meanings of words? I used ‘literally’ for this post simply because it’s an example of a recent change that may have been prevented with some concerted effort from writers, journalists and broadcasters. But the whole language is subject to undermining by those who misunderstand it. We all make errors from time to time. Do you think we should make it a habit to point out such mistakes and thereby preserve some of the meaning in what we write and say? Or do you think such effort is pointless, insulting, elitist, or simply unnecessary?

(A personal note: I will be recovering from the Great North Run on the day this appears, so please bear with me regarding replies. I may take a day or two to get back to you!)

11 thoughts on “Question for the Week: Have We Literally Gone Too Far?

  1. I think we should try to preserve the meaning of words as we know it, especially with this type of change that you mentioned. It’s something different to allow people to use more common pronunciation as they will do it anyway, but changing the meaning might bring more confusion.

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  2. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Good old Humpty. But, more seriously, language has always been changing, and I suspect that the revolution in communication that we have witnessed over the past twenty years or so especially is mainly to blame for the rapid changes nowadays.
    Hope that you’ve recovered satisfactorily from your run.

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    • Recovered now, Mick, thank you. Language change is now occurring at an exponentially accelerating rate so that one wonders whether any but the most basic words will retain their meanings in the near future.

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  3. Hi Stuart,
    Last night, my daughter had a small gathering of friends–high school seniors. I had a brief conversation with the girls about the convoluted meanings their generation manages to apply to existing words. It seems they take great pride in “creating.”

    I often find myself flipping through a paper symbol of generation teXt–The Urban Dictionary–just to keep up. This periodical often falls short or can’t keep up with the ever-growing vocabulary shifts either.

    My son–an excellent writer in accelerated classes–loves employing “new” or “bastardized” terms. He finds great humor in spewing phrases like, “fat stacks,” instead of “savings.” He explained to me how “mad” is only to be added to other adjectives. Example: “The coach accused the football player of being mad soft on the field.” Another example: “Those kicks are mad hot.” (kicks=sneakers). I spent two weeks trying to tell my son that a “swag” was a curtain not a “state of mind.” And the list goes on…

    I am a confirmed neologist but sometimes the ever-changing vocabulary horizon is even too much for me.

    I vote for literal to remain “literal” or literally history will be lost…

    annmarie:)
    I hope you’re getting some well-earned rest or you’ll be mad tired by week’s end 😉

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    • Youthspeak has always been rebellious and sought out ‘new’ meanings for accepted words and phrases, of course. The issue today, I think, is both the speed of that change and the fact that youthspeak, because so many in the media worship youth, is becoming the norm rather than the transitory influence it always used to be.

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    • Dumbing down, Jack: the current political answer to the lack of good education. The most depressing aspect of this phenomenon for me is the way that so-called professional journalists employ bad grammar in the pursuit of popularity.

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  4. What are we doing with our language? I guess if you figuratively fall out of a tree, you will literally hit the ground! A lot of this change is due to the current generation’s need for instant communication – do it fast, if not accurate. Eventually we will just communicate in letters: r u ok? Guess I will just LOL.

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    • And, at that point, Noelle, will language cease to be a method of communication and become simply an additional way to make meaningless noises, I wonder? Take those changes together with the loss of such punctuation as the apostrophe and you have a recipe for utter chaos in linguistic terms. i gess ill jus av 2 go wiv da flo!

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