No man will tether time nor tide, literally speaking.

Promise you! I’m literally going to cut my throat if I see that word again. Oh dear, I just have, Excuse me while I go and look for my grandpa’s cut-throat razor…

Fortunately, I couldn’t find it and I’m still here so you’ll just have to carry on reading, literally.

Still feels as if my throat’s been cut, though – and not by my own hand. Where’s Sweeney Todd when you want him? The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was long gone (even by my time there) – he was just an urban legend after all – but his handiwork would still not go amiss in the (now figurative) home of the press where misuse of ‘literally’ seems worse than ever.

Not so much by journalists themselves but those that they quote. Outstanding examples from people who should know better include one-time UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, railing against tax evasion: “…you are paying your taxes and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.”

As one commentator observed at the time, it’s a helluva way to go just to save some tax outlay. Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to stay at home?

joe dator cartoon, literally died
as did they all

Football is always a great source for language mangling, as evidenced for decades by Private Eye’s ‘Colemanballs’ feature. Here’s Jamie Redknapp: “In his youth, Michael Owen was literally a greyhound.” (!) 

We even have an explanation for the currently most popular romantic soap-opera: “It was this beautiful woman just sort of literally tripped and fell into my life.” (When Harry met Meghan as the movie remake will be titled.)

Nick Clegg’s space odyssey dates from about 12 years ago, but language purists have been complaining about such offences for well over a century. I find myself in exalted company when Mr Google informs me that one of my favourite writers, Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, wrote of ‘literally’ in his 1909 Write Right blacklist: “It is bad enough to exaggerate but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”

Even earlier, in 1903 the definitive Oxford English Dictionary noted in an almost sniffy tone of exasperation: “Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional or hypothetical phrase is to be taken in the strongest possible sense.” The OED’s learned editors may well have been chiding role model authors guilty of this transgression:

Louisa May Alcott in Little Women: “‘The land literally flowed with milk and honey

Mark Twain describing Tom Sawyer as “…literally rolling in wealth.”

Scott Fitzgerald writing that Jay Gatsby “literally glowed.”

The OED still advocates that in its strictest usage, ‘literally’ means ‘in a literal, exact, or actual sense’, but I fear this is a losing battle. Words change their meaning and a dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive. It shows how a word is used. When popular usage ousts the traditional, that usage becomes equally worthy of inclusion as a definition.

As a ‘dictionary on historical principles’, the full edition of the OED gives examples of how a word is used – from its first recorded instance through century by century references showing how the meaning has changed (or stayed constant, occasionally). In this way, some words can even develop two exactly opposite meanings.

‘Prestigious’, so beloved of estate agents and car salesmen, originally meant ‘deceptive or illusory’. Think of prestidigitator, a big word for a conjuror or magician who uses his digits – fingers – to mislead us. Similarly with ‘sophisticated’. Now a compliment, once a an insult. Think of its cousin ‘sophistry’ which has retained the original meaning – deceitful trickery – as prestigious once had. So how did they transform to imply ‘high status’ and ‘desirability’? That literally is one of the mysterious joys of the English language. 

Other contradictory examples include ‘cleave,’ which can mean ‘to stick to’ or the exact opposite ‘to split apart’. The verb ‘dust’ can mean ‘to remove dust from’ or to ‘sprinkle dust upon.’ And in our reading context there’s the wonderfully versatile ‘scan’ – meaning ‘to read closely’ or just ‘to skim’. Your choice.

Linguistic pedants will be happy to learn that such divergences are known as Janus words (from the two-headed Roman god who could look both ways at the same time), and as contronyms or autoantonyms.

But back to where we were…The OED tells us that ‘literally’ first shows up in 1429 in the formal Latin-derived sense of ‘actual letter by letter’, but by 1533 it was already the subject of our discussion here, when a writer called W. Fulke protested n his book Heskins Parl: “They interpret literally, which the doctors did write figuratively.”

Perhaps Fulke was arguing in the other direction and for acceptance of the growth of the word as an intensifier, rather than in the ‘absolute’ meaning. Was  it already undergoing change through popular usage and the literalists among us are still fighting a rearguard action? 

Again, the OED gives confirmation, describing what it calls the ‘colloquial’ use of the word: “…to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’). (My italics.)

In a 2005 radio interview, Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED, posed the question: “How did literally come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant, either ‘word for word’ or ‘exactly’?” 

He answered with: “In such examples, ‘literally’ is being used for the sake of emphasis alone. You can find examples throughout the 19th century, but no one seems to have objected until the early 20th.”

As King Canute demonstrated to his fawning courtiers, not even royal command will force the tide to obey orders. So too with lowly hacks and the tides of the English language. All we can do is mourn that the coffin-dodger has literally escaped our In Memoriam bin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.