Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I literally love language!

Image from stock.xchng
I was interested to read the following CNN post recently, saying how dictionaries are defining the word literally with its most current meaning rather than its traditional meaning. Thus literally is now used as an intensifier, meaning very or really, rather than meaning, well, literally. That means that you can now say, There were literally hundreds of choices on the menu, when in fact there were about forty choices. All you are doing is implying that there was a lot of choice. Usage changes, and dictionaries reflect current usage, though larger dictionaries always include original uses too. Of course, dictionaries always try to show the latest uses of words, though purists often object.

Many words are not used literally, though. I loved the CNN comment that "next thing they'll be telling us that there's no ham in hamburger, no egg in eggplant, a boxing ring isn't round and tennis shoes aren't just for tennis". This reminds me of Ogden Nash's poem on the hamburger (also known as a beefburger, particularly in the UK):

In mortal combat I am joined
With monstrous words wherever coined.
"Beefburger" is a term worth hating,
Both fraudulent and infuriating,
Contrived to foster the belief
That only beefburgers are made of beef,
Implying with shoddy flim and flam
That hamburgers are made of ham.

We have so many words in English that are not literally what they claim to be, or which have changed from their original spelling. Did you know that a newt, for example, used to be an ewte, but assimilated the n from the indefinite article? The same is true of an apron, which was originally a napron, and an umpire, which used to be a numpire. This process is called ‘metanalysis’, and you can read more about it in Stephen Ullmann’s fascinating book Semantics: An introduction to the science of meaning.
Other words may be ambiguous, depending on the variety of English you are using. For example, the verb to flog is used colloquially to mean to sell in the UK, but both to sell and to steal in Australia. Likewise, to barrack a team in the UK means to shout abuse, while in Australia to barrack for means to shout encouragement. As with ‘literally’, the word has come to change its meaning. There is obviously potential for confusion there!

When you think you are using a word to say one thing, but you are actually saying something else, that word is called a ‘false friend’. This was brought home to me when I lived in Portugal, where the word marmelada refers to a kind of quince jam. For me, as an English person, marmalade was always made from citrus fruit, and often had a bitter taste. Our local supermarket didn’t know this, though, and they ordered several boxes of what turned out to be English orange marmalade. No one bought it except for my family, so the price went down and down and we ate marmalade for months. Paddington would have been happy!
All this goes to show that language develops constantly, from one country to another, from one variety to another, and from one year to another. Online dictionaries try to reflect these changes and are a great place for learners of a language to check current usage. However, there are always new things that we can watch out for, and it's fascinating to see how words change their meaning. 

That’s why I literally love language!


Surrogacy In India said...

I'm comfortable with the old "literally". I will continue using it in the old sense. Some people are just using the words mistakenly and they are repeating it for so many times that the words which are spoken wrongly (in a wrong sense) have now been taken as correct words. I hate that!

Kunik Goel

Julia Miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Kunik. Like you, I prefer to use the traditional meanings for words. As you say, though, if something gets repeated often enough it becomes current usage. It's hard to keep up at times, especially with 'Teenspeak'. I don't mind using 'cool' to say I like something, as well as meaning that something is cold, but I couldn't say 'Wicked!' to show approval - but maybe that's very out of date now!

Jyh Sew said...

Agree with both...however what we think is conventional might be quite new and shocking once...For example, the word 'hello' used whenever we answer a phone call was actually considered rude because it was the call made among European hunters signalling to each other in the jungle once upon a time.