The dictionary allows an infuriating misuse of language

The dictionary allows an infuriating misuse of language, writes Christopher Howse. The Daily Telegraph

They are running short of onions in Bihar, the Indian state justly famed for the quality of its alliaceous ‘‘ I used to buy three kilograms of onion for a week,’’ a housewife told The Times of India, ‘‘ but now I have cut down to one kilogram because the price has almost tripled’’ . And how did the paper headline this news? ‘‘ Skyrocketing onion prices bring tears, literally!’’

An exclamation mark or screamer is generally a sign that the little joke being made is not one that the author is terribly confident will be spotted by the reader. But what of the literally?

Pedants are reported to be ‘‘ in uproar’ ’ because the Oxford English Dictionary has added a new definition to its entry for the word literally. In a ‘‘ colloquial’ ’ sense, it is ‘‘ used 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’ ).’’

Uproar is a common state for pedants to be in. It is like governments in debt. Indeed, pedants are seldom happy unless they are in uproar, which is why, five or six years ago, Richard Preston and I compiled a book called She Literally Exploded. It was subtitled: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Handbook.

Simply by opening the little book at random, readers could be sure of being infuriated quicker than by a tumbler of whisky. ‘‘ In terms of’ ’ comes on page 62, ‘‘ Misused as if it meant ‘with respect to’ . We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.’’ On page 113 appears ‘‘ step change’’ , closely related to quantum leap (on page 97). Goodness, I can feel a vein in my neck throbbing.

Of ‘‘ literally’ ’ we remarked that it is ‘‘ now used at random as an intensifier or synonym for really, by those with tin ears’’ . Our strictures made no difference . It is like public notices prohibiting litter, ballgames, cycling and unloading. Near them, you may be sure to find yourself swamped in litter, balls, bicycles or amateur stevedores.

While the world slept, the Oxford was busy collecting early examples of literally used in a catachrestic or depraved sense. Yet even some instances that the dictionary gives of its proper use are puzzling. Take this, from a letter by Alexander Pope: ‘‘ Every day with me is litterally another to-morrow ; for it is exactly the same with yesterday.’’ (Never mind the double-T in Pope’s spelling. He was no doubt thinking of the Latin littera, its etymon.) Can Pope mean that every day is literally tomorrow?

For the evil new meaning of literally , the Oxford pulls out a star performer , Mark Twain. When he used a word, he meant to. In Tom Sawyer, he wrote: ‘‘ And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in

I accuse the OED of misrepresenting Mark Twain, for his use of literally is far more literal than Pope’s . The sentence is taken from the famous incident when Tom gets other boys to pay him for letting them whitewash a fence. The wealth he gained was indeed enough to roll in. It included ‘‘ twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp , a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers , a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob , a dog-collar – but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel , and a dilapidated old window sash’’ . Rolling wouldn’t have done the kitten much good, unless it too rolled out of the way, but rolling was quite possible for a boy lazing in the shade and watching his customers work.

Mark Twain can look after himself. He’s in much bigger trouble over what we must nowadays call the ‘‘ N-word’ ’ (which the OED remarks is now ‘‘ strongly racially offensive when used by a white person in reference to a black person’’ ).

By the way, when earlier on I used quicker, I meant quicker. It can be an adverb. Shakespeare, Dickens and Tennyson agree with me about this. And when I placed in at the end of a sentence, I also intended to. It is a baseless myth to prohibit a preposition at the end of a sentence. Dryden may be blamed for spreading it, but even he admitted that it was a fault ‘‘ which I have but lately observed in my own writings’’ . The poor man then went through his own Of Dramatic Poesy for the next edition, changing each occurrence.

I would here mention Churchill’s ‘‘sort of English up with which I will not put’’, but it is such a chestnut. As for the so-called split infinitive, there can be no possible objection to it, except that it might put you in an uproar, and I wouldn’t like to even risk doing that. The Daily Telegraph


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