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The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “literally” sparked off a discussion about the meaning of words this month, after it was reported that the venerable etymological gazetteer apparently sanctions using the word to mean “figuratively”.  Or, as many people have hurried to point out, “not literally”.  The fact that this change was made a couple of years ago did not daunt anyone, and newspapers, Facebook feeds and watercoolers have all been alive with the sound of battle-lines.

On one side, the hell-in-a-handcart merchants to whom this is final proof that lax lexical standards are literally eroding the value of our language.  If a word like “literally” no longer points to a definite state of things out in the world, despite that being the only point of it, then how can we continue?  How can conversation continue in a medium which has been so eroded by grammatical sloppiness and verbal devaluation that it has apparently resigned any claim to precision?

On the other side, the world-weary humanists who demand if those who so quickly defer to “the dictionary” have ever actually asked a lexicographer what these books are for.  Language is a shifting and developing beast and dictionaries are intended to describe and document the fascinating use of language by actual people in the real world.  It is as foolish to demand that “the dictionary” should determine how people are allowed to use words, as it would be to consult a medical book and decide that because there is no entry for “broken leg”, the limb in question is simply malingering.

These two quick caricatures bear at least some resemblance to the variety of reactions to reporting on the OED’s work.  The former is prescriptivist, and the later descriptivist.  As the linguist and feminist Deborah Cameron pointed out some years ago, they actually bear a remarkable resemblance to each other when placed alongside.  The prescriptive crowd insist that language not be corrupted by slang, misuse and ugly innovations, whilst the descriptive mob demand that language be allowed to flourish in its pristine, natural state of use without being tinkered with by rule-inventing busy-bodies.  Both, as Cameron demonstrates, seem to imagine a prior state of language before the intervention of people from either the left or right linguistic wing.  She subsumed both kinds of tinkering into a category called “verbal hygiene”, the continual process of critique, comment and general meta-chat which is part of our experience of language.  This is not an artificial intervention, but part of the social and linguistic system itself.  Neither side can actually point to a moment when language was spoken “innocently” before the other side got their hands on it.

This reframes the argument to a point where both innovation and resisting it are reasonable activities.  Cameron’s concept opens up a space which had been foreclosed by rigidly prescriptive or descriptive systems, in which we discuss and critique language use without decrying either developments or the attempt to affect them.  The discussion is “reasonable” both because it makes sense to engage in it (without finding the very idea of linguistic critique invalid), and because the discussion calls for positions to be backed up by reason.  If we accept Cameron’s notion of verbal hygiene, it is not enough to rule out the meaning shift of “literally” because it is new and does not make sense in line with previous use, nor to assume it is splendid and inevitable because it has been observed happening in everyday discussion.  These positions seem to be often taken and then discarded, during Internet discussions about language, on the basis of the issue being tackled and as ways of applying an apparently “objective” standard to language use.  Cameron’s work casts into doubt the existence of these standards, and calls on us to examine the effects and implications of language use – our own, as well as others’.  It puts the meaning of words not in the hands of an original law-giver, nor the mouth of any individual speaker who decides what they mean at any moment, but in the communities of language users and what they generally accept as meaningful.

With that in mind, I think the OED entry for “literally” is a particularly telling moment in language use and the Internet discussions about it.  I know the quick spasm of irritation which comes from hearing someone use a word incorrectly, or even a whole sentence ineffectively – and I suspect a lot of people who read this blog feel a similar twitch.  Spending much of a lifetime with words can make one feel defensive and possessive about them.  “Literally” is a perfect storm because it seems to embody the very risk which people with more conservative linguistic tastes regularly warn us of: that our language use will become sloppy and imprecise.  If we want to communicate effectively, neatly and stylishly with people whom we don’t know, then words like “literally” seem absolutely essential.  The fact that the second meaning of “literally” is now “not literally” adds some weight to this argument.  But I’m also suspicious of the origin of that twitch.  After all, I’m not a very tidy person, physically or intellectually.  I don’t demand clarity and precision in art or cooking.

So why do I irk inwardly when I hear “I literally died laughing”?  Possibly because it makes me feel I’ve lost a bit of power.  I’ve been lucky enough to have a good education, to work in a field where my use of spoken and written language is part of my ability to do the job well, and to write the occasional thing online which people (even more occasionally) read.  My sense of skill in using language, as a reader and as a writer, is a big part of my professional and personal identity.  So when someone uses a word, or sentence construction, in a way which diverges from the way I would use it, I twitch.  It reminds me that not everyone subscribes to the rules under which I am considered competent and even clever.  It highlights the fact that people get along perfectly well without doing language the way I do, and that my way is therefore not necessarily better.  And it’s a jab in the ribs to my sense that I “own” my linguistic skill, when actually I share it with the whole network of other speakers and writers.  I could wake up one day and find they’d all moved on, leaving me with the stale ability to deploy words which no-one else would accept as valid currency any more.  Their co-operation, their indulgence and their part in the game is what makes me feel like I can do this well.  I wonder how much of the flinching which happens when we hear “literally” used in OED sense 2 stems from discomfort with that realization.

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