Grammar Slammer # 2 – The Slammer Gets Slammed, But Not Literally

We’re pleased to return with our second in the infinite series, the Grammar Slammer. Today’s episode combines a well-worn bug bear rug and a personal anecdote of a grammar slamming gone terribly wrong. Our story points at once to the importance of accuracy in the language and to the fact that unlike with weapons of mass destruction, it’s essential to have all of the facts before you pull the trigger (the writer notes, with tongue securely in cheek).

“I was literally destroyed”

While dramatic in the extreme, and in an era of constant hyperbole (case in point?), the use of the word ‘literally’, as it is so very liberally, literally has got to stop. And it’s not simply that it’s inaccurate in precisely every instance where metaphor or analogy is in use, it is quite metaphorically the prow of the language-killing icebreaker that is colloquial misuse and here’s why.

Because language is a slippery slope and we can expect a near constant evolution, there must remain certain fixed points of meaning that may not be dulled or weakened, lazy handlers be damned. And yet, the Oxford dictionary online concedes. Its entry for the word has been joined by a new definition that quite literally undoes its original meaning. For those of us who hold “literally” to its promise of representing something actual or undisputed, its chronic squandering can provide an entertaining side show of violent and often humorous imagery as you imagine someone being literally at the end of their tether or literally torn asunder.  Ouch!

This is exactly why, when an office colleague from I Can Go Without – let’s call him Josh – excitedly exclaimed, “wow, that’s literally so cool”, my auto-slammer tape ran. Hastily I objected. “I don’t think you meant to say literally”, though I did not know precisely what he was talking about. Being the wise apple “Josh” is, I should have expected the result. “Oh no, no” he quipped with the smile of a skilled entrapper “I was talking about the new fan on my laptop. It’s literally very cool.” I was thus firmly in my place. The short moral is, and the notable exception of WMDs, be darned sure you triple check before you slam.

As we conclude, let’s go back to the “language evolves” argument, and make clear the point. Of course it does. It’s the reason why today we can say things like “you’re so nice”, or “wow that was awful” without giving insult. Our vocabulary evolves, but does it not make sense to keep those words that may serve very specific, precise and perhaps even scientific purposes, safe from play? I think it does. There is no doubt, despite what the postmoderns may say, that dark and dangerous waters are found where absolutes become our bath toys.

Finally, let’s consider the fate of the word Prove. Today the verb describes the act of defiantly and resolutely making your case, while originally it was merely the act of testing. Perhaps this is one of the many seeds that have given rise to the trees, and now the forest of pseudoscience.

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