If you’re a regular on the Thursday grammar posts, you’ll know I’m mostly a traditionalist when it comes to language. I like my spellings accurate, my punctuation punctual and my idiom straight down the line.
But I’m also a realist. I love language precisely because it’s alive and expressive and personal. I love puns, and double meanings, and I’m proud that among different groups of friends, I have different languages which are unique to those friends. (Although it does get confusing; sometimes I have to check whether a word I’m using is universal before I write it in a story!). Chaucer, Shakespeare, JK Rowling… they have all added words to the lexicon of their times, and we are all the richer for it.
Moving to Canada has livened up the situation no end. I’m now bilingual and I’m raising my son the same way. At our post-natal group, I talk about strollers, diapers and so on; to his grandparents, it’s nappies and puchchairs. At work, I offered tomAYto ketchup and wAH-DUH, but at home, I make tomARRto pasta by boiling wOR-TER. (That’s pAstA; at work it would be pAHstER). You get the picture.
So I’m far from up in arms about the OED’s inclusion of the metaphorical meaning of Literally. I do find it uncomfortable when I hear the word used that way, but I’m not outraged. Some of my friends literally went nuts when they found out, pointing out that using a word to mean its exact opposite is, well, an outrage. And putting it in the dictionary ratifies that usage, doesn’t it? And it’s confusing, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. If you are reading a book, and you come across a word you don’t know. You look it up in the dictionary. That’s not really ratifying, it’s just accepting the truth. Sometimes, when you read a book (or magazine article, or quote etc) it’s going to include the word literally with its metaphorical meaning.
And when you do look it up, you’re probably faced with multiple meanings only one or two of which will make sense. So you’re going to have to use a bit of common sense anyway. It’s unlikely to be confusing. You’re unlikely to read the phrase “I literally died when he told me,” and not be sure which meaning to go with.
So what’s the real problem? Well, possibly the problem is that those people who really do mean literally are now going to struggle to make themselves understood. But I don’t think so. How often do we use literally the “proper” way in a place where it’s imperative that the other person knows we mean it, and it won’t be clear from context?
I think the real problem is what the real problem usually is. Change. Oh no, my friends, we do NOT like change.
Some footnotes (I love footnotes!)
1. The OED’s response to the controversy is worth reading.
2. Change (the noun) has 10 meanings in Chambers (generally the writer’s dictionary of choice). #3 is “a variation, especially a welcome one,”. Kind of goes against the rest of that sentence, doesn’t it? 😉