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literally and leapfrogging

August 21, 2013

I see that the OED has recognised the metaphorical use of the word literally – its secondary definition, added in 2011, states that informally it ‘can be used for emphasis rather than being actually true’, as in ‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing’. Readers of my earlier blogs on this subject will not expect me to be too pleased about that. But what I’m even less pleased about is the patronising leapfrogging, as I call it, of crusty old objectors like me by certain linguistically savvy commentators (such as John Rentoul in the Independent).

Let me explain what I mean by leapfrogging. There’s position 1: that is, of somebody who thoughtlessly uses literally metaphorically, without realising or caring that they’re using the word in a non-literal sense. Then there’s position 2: someone like me comes along, pointing out and bemoaning the error. But then there’s Position 3: a more sophisticated critic comes along and leapfrogs right over me and says “Sure, that’s not the traditional meaning, you’re right there, but so what? Language changes. These guys who are using it in a metaphorical sense are doing what comes naturally. If you object to it you’re missing the point – it’s not just inevitable, it’s actually desirable that language should change.”

No doubt the leapfroggers are right in a general sense. But I’d find their point much easier to accept if it wasn’t always announced with such glee. They remind me of someone at a funeral, upbraiding the mourners by saying, “Of course, everyone has to die, that’s a basic fact of biology, don’t you even know that?” That’s true, and I suppose we’d be in trouble if no one ever died, but that doesn’t stop individual deaths being worthy of mourning.

Just so, it’s true that living languages do and must change, and as language-users we enjoy and benefit from that freedom. But not all individual changes are for the better. Some changes are regrettable, leading to a loss of subtlety or precision. And this is the case with literally, which is now collapsing into a synonym for really (which itself made the journey from a literal to a figurative meaning a long time ago), instead of carrying the powerful signification that, for once, what is said is actually exactly what is meant. That’s a loss, however you look at it.

It’s also not the case that each individual change is irresistible. We can’t stop language changing, but specific changes can sometimes be fought successfully. I can remember, back in the 70s, the vogue for the expression ‘at this moment in time’. People, particularly politicians, were always using it in interviews. But it wasn’t long before others began to mock this pompous, pleonastic usage, and it was simply laughed out of existence.

I think we could have turned back the non-literal use of literally with ridicule too (as Private Eye was attempting to do in its occasional column drawing attention to misuses). But it’s too late now. I’m literally gutted. 

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  1. Jams O'Donnell permalink

    Interestingly, though, it has taken 2 years for anyone to notice the inclusion in the OED (i.e. anyone in the press) over which period people have still mocked ‘misuse’. So maybe the original usage and delight in absurd exaggerations still keep the old meaning to the fore.

  2. Best post ever.


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