14 August, 2013

Literally Changing the Definition of Words

Image from Wikipedia
In the news this week, it was announced that the Oxford English Dictionary has updated the definition of the word 'literally' to include being a word "used for emphasis". I'm not sure why this is in the news this week as, apparently, this change happened some time ago, but the change make me figuratively die inside.

I know it's the OED's responsibility to keep a record of the English language as it evolves, so this was probably the right thing to do. I still don't like it though. It's so difficult to get the balance right between letting a language evolve (after all we don't speak in the same way people did 1000, 500 or even 100 years ago) and not caring about how a language is used, isn't it? One of the most commented-on posts on this blog was about grammar peeves - it's something people feel strongly about.

I know I have lost the battle to persuade people NOT to use 'invite' as noun ("I'll pop the invite in the post"). I even accept that I am a total hypocrite for steadfastly sticking to 'invitation' in this case, but often using 'quote' when I should really say 'quotation' ("I read a really great quote the other day") - which is exactly the same error. I do try to use 'quotation' but 'quote' often slips out when I'm not looking.

So what do you think? Are the OED right to upgrade 'literally', or should they be encouraging us to stamp out such sloppy use of language? I think maybe I'm with the presenter/journalist James Naughtie who, after hearing the news on the Today Programme (one of the UK's top current affairs programmes in the mornings) said something along the lines of, "It may be acceptable, but it still sounds stupid."

11 comments:

  1. This is very disappointing.

    I'll admit I do some of those others, but I always catch when people do literally. And that guy is right, it does sound stupid.

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    1. I guess we all have our own hang-ups. Some people probably don't care about literally at all, but would freak out at something I say that they think is "incorrect". But I'm with you - disappointed!

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  2. You mean when someone literally walked a thousand miles today - thats okay?

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    1. Apparently so. You are also now permitted to literally die with laughter at this piece of ridiculousness.

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    2. The problem with using it "for emphasis" is that it really doesn't add anthing, except a sense of "don't be stupid, you cannot have literally .... walked a thousand miles today ...died with laughter .... or whatever, that just isn't possible!" So for me it just devalues the whole statement It makes me think the speaker is given to flights of fancy and tends to make me doubt the veracity of anything they might say, however much they insist it is true.

      So this time I'm afraid I think the OED is wrong.

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    3. I guess the OED consider themselves to be a record of language not a police of language or responsible for maintaining any "standards". It still makes me sad though.

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  3. When I heard this, I literally did a face-palm. (I'm using the literal form of "literally.")

    I think if they had to keep up with the ever-changing trends of the English language, they'd have to completely throw "you're" out of the dictionary and say "your" means "you are."

    I think it's one of those things that makes you sound uneducated, and now we're encouraging it.

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    1. That's a good point and one I hope never happens! I don't so much mind if people sound uneducated, because a lot of people can't help being uneducated. It's just the laziness of using a word which doesn't mean what you're using it to mean that gets me.

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  4. I literally laughed my head off when I read this. (Just as well I can touch-type.) There will surely be times when, not knowing any longer whether "literally" actually mean "literally" or not, confusion or uncertainty will arise?

    But the more important point is the one you raised about whether dictionaries are there to turn to for correct usage of words or simply to reflect common but incorrect usage. If it's the latter, do we really need full dictionaries at all? Since we're allowed to make up our own meanings, surely we only need lexicons of rare or unusual words we might not know the meaning of (then once we do we can change those too!)

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  5. Follow-up: I wrote to the OED to register my outrage and got an automated acknowledgement followed days later by another stock reply saying they were much to busy to deal with individual comments.

    I'm afraid I told them that was rather pathetic!

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    1. You're such a grumpy old man!

      The more I think about this the more I feel that maybe it was the right thing to do. The problem is that people use 'literally' wrong, not that the OED recorded it. After all, if you'd never heard the word and looked it up to see what somebody meant by it, you would want the dictionary to give all the possible things they might have meant (within reason) and it does get used "wrong" a lot. My only gripe is that it makes the "wrong" use seem legitimate!

      Perhaps the OED get a bit exasperated that people have just started writing to them now when they made the change two years ago!

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