A letter to a would-be King Cnut of language

Dear Dominic

You and I got into a discussion about the abuse of the word literally. I suggested that you look at something I wrote about learning language by osmosis. Language is what people speak, I suggested, not what the rules say. You didn’t see it that way. You made an analogy with shopping:

[…] if we look at other norms of behaviour, is the majority always right? For instance, if you go to a shop and you realise they have given you back too much change, would you own up and give them back the difference?

[…] But let us suppose that the “automatically own up” brigade are say 25% of the population, and their proportion is dwindling. Surely theirs is the only “right” stance. And don’t they have a right to say so, and encourage others to do the “right” thing?

Here’s my response.

There is an implicit contract about the meaning of money and the arithmetic that goes with it. The calculation at the till and the rules about how to handle errors can be expressed simply and unambiguously. We all know what they are, and we all know the consequences of breaking them. By using money, we sign up to the rules that control its exchange. In Sterling we have 7 coins and 4 notes (or have they abolished 1p while I wasn’t looking?) It’s simple enough to control the form of these tokens. Everybody knows what they are. People don’t invent new coins themselves or find new ways of using the existing coins. Money starts out being regulated and it has no function if it is not regulated.

Unlike money, language was not invented at a particular moment, and has never been successfully codified or regulated. In English there are more than a million words, new words are being added all the time, and archaic ones die out. Meanings of words and their pronunciations are in constant flux.

Take for example the word literal about which you are so prescriptive. The word derives from the Latin litera, meaning letter. Around 236 BC there was a major effort to translate the bible from ancient Hebrew into Greek. When the translators came across words in Hebrew that they couldn’t translate, they translated the words letter-for-letter. [See Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos, p107] As an example Bellos talks about the word that is now rendered in English as cherubim. This was a letter-for-letter (hence literal) translation of a hebrew word כרובים into Greek χερουβμ and finally English cherubim. They hadn’t a clue what it meant. Other words that are literal translations include Jehovah and Hallelujah.

Your use of literal in the sense of using the exact meaning of a word or phrase is a distortion or generalisation of its original meaning, which referred to letters rather than words or phrases. I defend your right to use it in that way, even though its meaning has changed, presumably because the majority of people started to use it that way.

The meanings of words go through transitions. A teacher in an English class told someone off for saying quite unique. “There are no degrees of uniqueness”, she said. It was pointed out to her that the word quite as she understood it had reversed its meaning from:

1 to the utmost or most absolute extent or degree; absolutely; completely

to

2 to a certain or fairly significant extent or degree; fairly

Used in the older sense, quite unique is quite valid.  However, as a result of the transition in meaning, quite and not quite now mean exactly the same thing! The second usage is now well established, and people don’t go around correcting it.

Just now the word literally is in the process of a similar transition. My Mac says:

usage: In its standard use, literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a nonliteral or exaggerated sense’: I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally . In recent years, an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect: they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects ( we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English.

So the word literal is  starting to mean the opposite of what it used to mean. You can command it away as much as you like but you will fail (as does the Mac’s snide attempt to simultaneously define and deprecate it, thereby mixing definition with prescription).

Grammar starts out as a theoretical description of how people construct sentences. Dictionaries start out as a description of what people mean by certain words. These descriptions are attempted while the language is continuously changing. There is no way they can capture the current state of the language. They are out of date before they are completed. Bellos writes:

To try to capture ‘all the words of a language’ is as futile as trying to capture all the drops of water in a flowing river. If you managed to do it, it wouldn’t be a flowing river any more. It would be a fish-tank.

And yet some people keep on trying to make these things prescriptions about how other people should speak.

You say there is a need for standardisation in the language, so that people can talk to each other. But people do this by talking to each other and learning usages from each other. They don’t sit and read dictionaries or study grammar books. And anyway, if I say “I was literally gutted”, you know exactly what I mean. Your objection is nothing to do with the clarity of my expression and everything to do with my violation of some rule that lives in your brain. The problem is yours, not mine.

Best regards

Jeremy

PS I still want that beer.

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