I Am Pedant, Hear Me Scrawl

I don't know if this is a recent trend or if I have only just bothered to take note of it, but an awful lot of people seem to be annoyed by the use of "literally". Apparently, everyone is using it wrongly. Hmmmm.
This kind of pedantry is nothing new (nor is it the sole purview of English speakers). Probably since its first publication, people have been turning to the Oxford English Dictionary to prove that someone or other is misusing a word or abusing the language (and bare in mind that the OED was not the first dictionary of English, it is merely the most comprehensive). In other climes people not only have dictionaries to turn to but actual enforcement bodies that decide whether or not one or the other definitions of a word is correct. For example the L'Académie française is a set of people (les immortels) who act as an official authority on the French language.


Not that anyone really takes any notice of the Academy, but it has a little more umph than the OED, or at least it should have, as the OED is not an authority on the way words SHOULD be used, merely on how they are and have been used since each entered the English language (and was first compiled mostly by an American man, W.C. Minor, who was a criminal lunatic). The OED is updating all the time; not only adding new words but updating existing entries with new definitions.


English words change a lot. Take, for example, one of my favourites; "nice". How do you use it?
  • "Oh, that's a nice dress."
  • "This looks like a nice place to sit."
  • "He's a nice man."
Yeah? Well, you're wrong. "Nice," in the 13th century, meant "stupid, ignorant", from the Latin for "not knowing"; ne- "not" and the stem scire "to know." It's transformation from the original sense to "pleasant" is astounding. "Nice" has meant all sorts of things including, but not restricted to; "timid", "fastidious", "delicate", "thoughtful" and "precise".


Speaking of "stupid"; the term "idiot" is from the Greek idios or "one's own". It meant a "private person, not taking part in public affairs." It WAS used in a negative way, to describe someone without a skilled occupation who would not have been a member of a guild or employed by the state/ruler such a soldier, smith or mason. However, it did not mean someone who had no common sense.


What about other words? How do you use the following;
  • Decimate
  • Awful
  • Down
  • Pudding
  • Cynic
  • Cyber
  • Punk
  • Virtue
  • Doctor
  • Naughty
  • Meat
  • Orange
I'm willing to bet you use most if not all of those in a way they were not originally used...
  • Decimate; meant in the early 16th century to reduce by one tenth, by execution, mutinous military units (the tenth being from the Latin deci, the same as you'll find in "decimal") 
  • Awful; in the 13th century, something "awful" was worthy of awe, respect and fear, not really a word you'd use to describe a bad poem, say.
  • Down; means up! No, really. It's from the same Old English root as "dune", the sandy things, and the word we still use for grassy hills; "down" like the Watership one. "Ofdune" or "off dune" meant "off the hill" but the "off" part was gradually lost.
  • Pudding; if you offered a 13th century person a pudding, they'd not be expecting a cheese cake, but something more akin to a haggis. Entrails stuffed in a stomach and boiled. Omnomnom. It came to eventually meaning anything boiled, then only sweet boiled things and then, well, to cheese cake.
  • Cynic; dog like. This is... circuitous. I'll just give you the link.
  • Cyber; is from "cybernetics" which is the anglicised version of the Greek kybernetes, meaning "steersman, governor."
  • Punk; this was first used in the 1590s as a word for "prostitute".
  • Virtue; a woman cannot be virtuous, well, she can, but then we would call her "butch". It's from Latin virtus "manly, heroic" The vir is the same as the one in "virile".
  • Doctor; this is first attested in English in the 13th century and meant "Church father, religious teacher". It didn't take on the medical meaning until the late 14th century. For some reason we dropped the "medical" in "medical doctor" rather than the bit that meant "holder of the highest university degree".
  • Naughty; someone who is naughty is in need for they have nothing, their possessions amount to "naught". This original sense is from the late 14th century. By the time Shakespeare was using it, "naughty" had shifted to mean "wicked, evil", so The Bard was using it incorrectly!
  • Meat; this is Old English term for a food stuff that isn't a drink. It's any old thing you might eat. This meaning is still found in "mince meat" which is just ground up food.
  • Orange; not a colour. The fruit came first, in the 13th century (and we got that wrong, because it's from the Sanskrit naranga-s). We named the colour after the citrus's skin. Until the 1540s, anything that was a red-yellow colour was described as, er, red-yellow.
Some people have said they don't mind the change in use of most words because it happens all the time (as illustrated above), but that they take umbrage with the change in meaning of "literally" because , if we lose that then there is no synonym to replace it.

Never mind that there are lots of synonyms for literally, the fact remains that if there is a gap in our MASSIVE lexicon we will find a way to fill it, if it needs filling. We might make up a word, adjust an old word by adding a suffix or prefix, change the meaning of another word or just steal one from another language. That's what English does. The cycle and evolution (along with the pilfering) never ends.

Who says that "literally" can't have more than one meaning anyway? No one complains that "sanguine" (originally a type of red cloth) means "hopeful", "blood thirsty" and "bloody". No one complains, either, that "bloody" can mean "covered in essential life fluids" or "aggravating" (or, more accurately, pertaining to the rowdy behaviour of young nobles, blue bloods) as well as being used simply as an emphasising word, as in "this advert is bloody annoying!" 

The fact that many words in English have more than one definition (some spelt in different ways) allows us to pun and play with words in all manner of clever and amusing ways. Without the multiple meanings of so many words the likes of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and the writers of the Carry Ons would have had a lot less material to work with.

Finally, just to hammer home my point a teeny bit more. Do you know what "literally" actually means? It's from  Latin; litera "letter" and means, essentially, "belonging to writing" It was first used in English in reference to Scripture and is a specific way of interpreting the Bible. So, unless you're dissecting a pesky bit of biblical verse or talking about words and letters you should probably, if you want to be totally faithful to the oldest sense and root of the word, leave "literally" well alone.

If you want to take a poke at some of the words I've exampled above the quickest, easiest and cheapest (though not always most accurate) way is via Etymonline. Otherwise you'll have to purchase a a subscription to the online OED, which is pricey (and no, I don't have one).

I am fully, completely and utterly prepared to be shot down on any of the points above, but the general idea still stands; the English language evolves and if you want people to use one word in its original sense you should probably start using them all that way. Good luck with that...

N.B. Yes, I myself do get annoyed at certain additions and adaptations, mostly when they're just damn ugly.

One last itch I HAVE to scratch; "pedant" meant "teacher" in late 14th century English, but is ultimately from the Latin paedagogus, which was a slave who escorted children to school.
blog comments powered by Disqus