The English language is literally evolving
People tend to think of writers as being nitpicking, pedantic types who are all too willing to mock anyone who makes a spelling mistake or gets the meaning of a word wrong. This is of course entirely accurate, but I also like to think that most of us can distance ourselves from such behaviour and be a bit more pragmatic about such things. Language evolves and it’s meaning that truly matters.
If using words is your job, you know that they don’t have fixed meanings. In reality, words are amorphous little bastards and you just have to try and fit them together as best you can. The way a writer understands a sentence and the way a reader interprets it may not be the same and therein lies the skill. You’ve basically got to make the best of things and try and convey ideas as clearly as possible.
The reason why I’m writing about this today is because of the ‘literally’ hoo-ha from earlier in the week. If you Google the word, the results now display a couple of definitions, one of which is:
“Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”
As much as anything, the problem seems to be that an already common usage has been lent an air of authority through dictionary inclusion. However, that isn’t what dictionaries are for. They’re descriptive, not prescriptive. They simply reflect the way in which we already use language, documenting the way we communicate at a particular point in time.
Take a simple word like ‘dashboard’. What we now think of as being a dashboard has only a flimsy link to the original meaning which was a board on a carriage which blocked the dashes of mud kicked up by horses’ hooves.
Similarly, ‘enthusiasm’ originally meant possession by a god and has since moved towards meaning a strong emotional state without some sort of divine cause.
We see the same thing with words of appreciation. The more they are used, the less impact they have. We read and hear words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘awesome’ so often that they have become devalued to some extent. To write well, you have to stay ahead of the game and find a word that has retained its power or which is now used so rarely that it has regained it.
Another interesting usage is for the word ‘ordinary’ which is now sometimes used to mean something more like ‘dreadful’. This might actually be linked to the phenomenon described in the previous paragraph. To say that something is ‘a bit ordinary’ is to damn it with faint praise to such an extent that it actually constitutes criticism.
Personally, I feel that this newly-recognised use of ‘literally’ is a bit ordinary, but unfortunately the evolution of the English language is out of my hands.