Britons literally furious about misused words
When Nick Clegg misused ‘literally’ on Saturday, UK grammar enthusiasts were furious. The word has been used wrongly for years – but can the evolution of language ever be reversed?
‘It makes people so incredibly angry,’ said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. ‘You are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.’
On hearing Clegg’s speech, many people were incredibly angry. Their blood boiled. Some exploded with rage. Figuratively, that is. But not literally. That would have led to some very unusual headlines.
‘Literally’ is perhaps the most misused word in the English language. Its true definition is ‘not figuratively’: it indicates the speaker is describing something that really happened. But in modern English it is commonly used as an intensifier – like ‘totally’ or ‘really’ – to stress an important point.
That is why people react angrily to statements like ‘she literally had a frog in her throat’. The word is an unnecessary addition that makes the metaphor in the sentence real. If the speaker had actually swallowed an amphibian it would be accurate, but it probably just means ‘she was feeling ill.’
The changing meaning, however, is not new, and people have been using ‘literally’ wrongly for years. Little Women author Louisa May Alcott was not describing unusual weather when she wrote, in 1868, that the land ‘literally flowed with milk and honey’. Within fifty years, a 1909 article that claimed a speech ‘literally swept the audience from its feet’ was being attacked by critic Ambrose Pierce: ‘it is bad enough to exaggerate’, he wrote, ‘but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.’
But ‘literally’ is not the only word to change its meaning over time. ‘Artificial’, now used to mean fake, was once a positive term suggesting artistic beauty. And in the 18th Century the words ‘awesome’ and ‘awful’ denoted something grand and fearsome, that filled the watcher with a feeling of awe. Now many people use ‘awesome’ to describe positive experiences, that might range from the birth of a child to a particularly tasty sandwich.
Many linguists believe words do not have a fixed definition. As time goes on, and they are used in different ways with different associations, their meaning develops and changes. Language is only meaningful when it is being used and understood, not when its definition is written down in a dusty abandoned book.
If words can mean whatever we want them to, others argue, no-one will know what anyone else is talking about. Language is a precise tool, and each word has a subtle meanings that we all agree upon. To express ourselves clearly, we must agree on the proper definition of words: straying from those definitions causes nothing but confusion.
- Why do people have such a big problem with the misuse of ‘literally’ rather than other changed words, like ‘awful’?
- Should the meaning of words be flexible or fixed?
- Pick one of your favourite ‘literally’ misuses. Imagine if ‘literally’ really had meant ‘in the literal sense.’ Draw a picture of the scenario.
- Watch how you speak! Make a list of words you use in an unusual or unorthodox way. Do you think your meaning is as legitimate as the ‘official’ one?
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Q & A
- All my friends use ‘literally’ and I know what they’re talking about.
- That’s true. But in more formal settings – or when an important point is being made – using this kind ofcolloquial language may cause confusion, or appear socially inappropriate. Just last week, it was reported that employers were putting young people on courses to correct the ‘text-speak’ they were using in the office. If your employer doesn’t agree that language is flexible and constantly-changing, you might find yourself out of a job.
- So howshould I use the word?
- To avoid the anger of grammar pedants, you should avoid using ‘literally’ for anything that is clearly untrue, or for statements that are obviously not figurative, such as ‘I literally got out of the car’.
- Figurative language is not realistic: it uses turns of phrase, symbolic references and metaphors to communicate its point. It can derive from figures of speech, recognised by large groups of people, or from complex metaphors and symbols invented by poets.
- Louisa May Alcott
- Alcott was an American novelist, most famous for the novel Little Women and its sequels. Written in the 19th Century, Alcott’s novels tackled themes of growing up, childhood and feminism, and were deeply inspired by her own experiences. As well as writing, she campaigned for women’s suffrage in the USA.
- Language that is informal, or ‘improper’ is often called colloquial language. The term covers modern slang, local dialects, figures of speech and any kind of mannerisms that should only be found in informal conversation. Examples include using ‘lol’ as a spoken term, using words such as ‘like’ as fillers in speech, or cockney rhyming slang.