Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Literally the most annoying thing in the world, metaphorically speaking

As one of my Linguistics professors at university once said, “English is a dynamic language”. And you know what? I get this, and I appreciate it. If it wasn’t, we’d struggle to communicate in an ever-changing world - we need neologisms and semantic shift is unavoidable. People will always start to use a word in a different way, and inevitably, in time, it will become a part of the language.

For example, “meat” used to mean all food, but now its meaning has narrowed. “Wicked” meant evil, not excellent or wonderful as the kids claim today. And we all know how “gay” came out…

But sometimes, just sometimes, I think we should say “No. That’s just stupid” and fight against the change. And certainly not add some ridiculous new meanings to the dictionary.

The reason for this linguistic ramble? Today, somebody reminded me that of one of my bugbears, the egregious* use of the word “literally”, had made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I’d heard a rumour of this a while ago, and dismissed it as being just plain ridiculous. So this morning I looked it up…and it seems the word “literally”, meaning “metaphorically”, was added to the OED in 2011. It’s just that no one seemed to have noticed.

Basically, it looks like they’ve added a new meaning because so many idiotic people don’t know the old meaning. No! That’s just stupid! Now you (Jamie Redknapp) can legitimately get away with saying “Wayne Rooney was literally on fire!” when you actually mean “he performed quite well”.

Not only is this just mildly annoying (as opposed to being “literally the most annoying thing in the world”), what it really does is rob us of a pretty useful word. I mean, how do I now emphasise to someone that I mean literally in the previous sense of the word?

“Did you see that Tibetan monk’s protest? He was literally on fire!”
“You mean he performed well?”
“Er, no. I mean he was actually on fire. You know what, never mind.”

*Interestingly (well, to me anyway) “egregious” itself has shifted semantically – originally this word described something that was remarkably good (from the Latin egregius: "illustrious, select", or literally, "standing out from the flock". Now it means something that is remarkably bad or flagrant.

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