The English language is literally spiralling exponentially out of the control of pedants

Opinion: a word now seems to mean what a lot of people think it might mean

Changing language: but there is more concern to retain the ‘proper’ meaning of words that have been around for a long time. Photograph: Getty Images

Changing language: but there is more concern to retain the ‘proper’ meaning of words that have been around for a long time. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Aug 31, 2013, 00:01

Even the most fanatical pedant must admit that usage is the ultimate arbiter of linguistic propriety. That is to say, a word means a certain thing because significant numbers of people take it to mean a certain thing.

An informal process has evolved to monitor any shift in definition. At one end of the spectrum we meet words that will, from time to time, be “mistakenly” used in a way that does not conform to the dictionary definition. A chap might write “limpid” when he means “flaccid”. This still counts as an error. At the other end, we encounter words that, after decades of squabbling, have had their meaning formally transformed. Classical scholars will tell you that, derived from a term used by the Roman military, “decimate” used to mean the killing of one in 10 of any accused group. Now, we take it to mean the same as “annihilate” (which itself used to mean “make null and void”).

The really interesting, contentious words can be found in the middle section of the spectrum. Pondering the debate over “disinterested” – now often taken to mean the same as “uninterested” – could quite literally make your head explode. The slippery situation as regards “hopefully” – originally an adverb meaning “in hopeful fashion” – is quite literally a linguistic minefield. I have already, in this place, written about the reinvention of “crack” as “craic”. So, I will say no more lest I literally suffer a nuclear meltdown.

Do you see what I’ve done there? Recent developments in relation to two controversial words offer an insight into the attitudes of writers and readers to changes in definition: the first is “literally”; the second we will get to in a moment.

Sweat made of bullets
Such was the pleasure taken at supposed misuse of “literally” that Private Eye magazine would occasionally devote an entire column to examples from the fortnight’s media. This fellow had “literally laughed his head off”. Another chap had “literally sweated bullets”. And so on. The rule was simple. To insert “literally” into a sentence was to assert that no metaphor or simile was being used. The event happened exactly as described. Real bullets emerged from human pores. Heads genuinely tumbled off shoulders.

Earlier this month, some clever clogs noticed that, as long ago as September 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary had acknowledged the sportscasters’ version of the word “literally”. The current definition admits that, when writing informally, the word can be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true”. When contacted about the apparent shift, Fiona McPherson, senior editor of the OED, did the decent thing and unleashed her own gag. “It seems to have literally slipped under the radar,” she said.

Here’s the question. When do lexicographers – and the compilers of newspaper stylebooks – have to admit defeat and allow in new interpretations of old words? These recent events offer interesting answers. If the word is venerable then any transmutations should be treated with great caution. It has taken an awfully long time, but – and this will strike purists as a dire enormity – the OED and Webster’s Dictionary now admit “enormity” can mean “hugeness”.

“Some people regard this use as wrong, arguing that enormity in its original sense meant ‘a crime’,” the Oxford entry reads. “Nevertheless, the sense is now broadly accepted in standard English, although it generally relates to something difficult, such as a task, challenge or achievement.”

The admission is grudging. It allows only a partial shift in usage. Similarly, the entry for “literally” makes sure to clarify that, in formal writing, the old meaning should be applied. There is a sense that a long, long war is slowly grinding toward a difficult settlement. Expect subeditors at The Irish Times to correct misuses of “literally” for some time.

Trolls unite
Now, compare this with the staggeringly sudden shift that has befallen the word “troll”. As recently as a year ago, the word’s meaning – in the digital rather than mythological sense – was precise. A troll was a person who stated extreme views as a way of triggering arguments on online forums. Those views were often not sincerely held. The troll’s aims were those of the provocateur.

As the debate over online abuse has escalated, newspapers, websites and broadcast media have hurriedly abandoned the original sense and embraced a wider definition that takes “troll” to mean digital bully. Whereas it took centuries for the lines to shift on “literally”, the battle is already over on “troll”. Troll is a relatively new word and few people have any great attachment to the meaning it had last week. Heck, by the time you read this, it may have changed back again. Who’d be a pedant in the digital age?

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