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June 1, 2011 / Nick


The abuse of the English language is something that can really drive people insane. Sloppy language use has always been around, but the evidence has truly unravelled in these times of rapid communication. While an errant apostrophe can seriously knock a confident writer of his or her feet, we mustn’t forget that we’re all human. All that said, do you want to know something that will genuinely blow your socks off? Something that has surely gone over your head? In fact, I reckon it has definitely gone over your head.
I have literally been playing with your brain in the last paragraph…

I literally couldn't give a shit.

You see, while my ‘misuse’ of ‘literally’ may have set off klaxons in the language processing area of your head, the exact same type of ‘misuse’ of other words probably crept past your alarm system unnoticed.

You might say that I can’t have literally been playing with your brain unless I performed some kind of invasive surgery (which is not my bag, let me tell you). But the first paragraph is riddled with the same kind of logic.
Has language abuse ever really driven someone insane? Has it truly unravelled in recent times? Can an apostrophe seriously knock a writer off their feet? Are you socks genuinely still on? Surely they are. They definitely are.

"I am GENUINELY speechless. But not *literally* speechless. That would be silly."

The thing about the word ‘literally’ is that it has been cruelly victimised as the trickster who sets successful people ‘on fire’,  makes talent show contestants ‘nail’ songs to imaginary surfaces and causes people who laugh too much to ‘die’. ‘Literally’ is sent to think about what it has done on the English language’s naughty step alongside txt-speak and filler words like ‘like’, like.
Meanwhile words like ‘seriously’, ‘really’ and even the seemingly angelic ‘definitely’ continue to enact chaos almost wherever they go despite having virtually the same natural meaning.

It’s not just my rambling opinion I’ve based this on. A linguist, Michael Israel, has written an entire academic paper (PDF) on the subject showing that ‘literally’ is in the process of the same change that similar words went through before it.

While the likes of ‘genuinely’ have escaped all the tellings-off, little old ‘literally’ is the only word that got caught. It is not allowed to be used for emphasis like its friends are free to do. It is only allowed to be used to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

Poor ‘literally’.
You’ve been stitched up good and proper by those other words.

Wouldn't want to meet this down a dark alley, would you?

Talk proper.

Hard as some people may find it, words not only can, but regularly do have more than one meaning. I don’t even know anymore if ‘wicked’ still means ‘bad’, or if ‘bad’ still means ‘good’, or if ‘good’ means…come to think of it, that’s a pretty reliable one, but you get my point.

People who believe that there is some time in which the English language was at its best and that we should try to keep language like it was then are being irrational. I thought like those people once too, but now I’ve seen the error of my ways. If we don’t allow change, then we just end up getting more and more irate at the instances where the language wants to go where it feels and we’re not letting it.
It seems ridiculous when you stop and think that English language users get so uppity about how to correctly use ‘literally’ but can’t quite be bothered to come to a decision on how to spell yoghurt/yogurt/yoghourt.

I think it’s time that we perhaps started to think about letting ‘literally’ go and be free with its emphasis-marking brethren. After all, aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Especially while there are people who use the word ‘barter’ where they mean ‘haggle’…

Review: I could literally murder anyone who picks on that poor word.



Leave a Comment
  1. Nerk / Jun 1 2011 12:51 pm

    How do you feel about “addicting” for “addictive” and “concerning” for “cause for concern”?

    • Nick / Jun 1 2011 1:55 pm

      I don’t know if I’ve ever come across ‘addicting’ for ‘addictive’ but it sounds quite silly.
      ‘Concerning’ sounds a lot like ‘worrying’ to me. I can’t really find fault in that.

      That’s just my opinion though. I think you can find reasonable ‘fault’ in any language change but if enough people start using it then objecting starts to look a bit daft.

      • Nerk / Jun 1 2011 1:58 pm

        I know that English evolves and it’s silly to complain but addicting is a minor peeve of mine. I don’t tell people not to use it, though. Here it is in action:

      • Nick / Jun 2 2011 1:26 pm

        That is pretty horrific, isn’t it?

  2. jotaro / Jun 1 2011 6:52 pm

    might be interested to hear what stateside comic-man louis ck has to say on the issue on his recent offering, ‘hilarious’. track 7 if you’re heading direct to the source, though the whole work is actually pretty damn good. perhaps even AMAZING, to the point where i LITERALLY cannot function anymore.

    • Nick / Jun 2 2011 1:27 pm

      I checked that out. It is HILARIOUS.
      I’m making a note to listen to the rest at some point.

  3. Sumarumi / Jun 2 2011 5:41 pm

    Here in South Wales it is common (in every sense…) to use ‘lend’ instead of ‘borrow’, as in: “Can I lend your lawn mower?”

    Our Valleys people have also introduced consistency to the usual English usage ‘length, width and height’ – they have ‘length, width and heighth’.

    • Nick / Jun 3 2011 11:39 am

      At my secondary school in South London there was a guy who always asked ‘can you borrow me a pound?’ (the answer was often various impolite ways of saying ‘no’).
      Between London and South Wales ‘lend’ and ‘borrow’ might be in equilibrium.

  4. Nerk / Jun 3 2011 11:41 am

    Yeah, I knew a South London “‘borrow’ for ‘lend'” guy, though it later morphed into “borry” which was worse.

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