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!)