Sunday, 5 January 2014

'I was literally decimated.'

The entry for ‘Literally’ in the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary now allows that the word can be used as a mere intensifier, like ‘Very’. Of course, we have always known that when some idiotic little girl on the BBC says breathlessly ‘I was literally decimated!’ she doesn’t in fact mean that she is a Roman Legion one tenth of whose members have just been put to death by their commanding officer as punishment for some failure: she just means she is upset or annoyed. Thus ‘Decimated’ now means not very much at all, and ‘Literally’ now means ‘Figuratively’; the precise opposite of what it used to mean.

Usage change is inevitable, and is and always has been powered by ignorance. A footballer, a pop singer, a BBC presenter hears a new and impressive-sounding word or expression and proceeds to use it in public with some meaning it has not previously borne. Pretty soon everybody, wanting to be up-to-the-minute, is using it in this new meaning. Anyone who resists such changes is at once accused of wanting to kill the language; to have it inscribed immutably on tablets of stone. We don’t of course; we fight a rearguard action not because we seriously hope to win, but simply to draw attention to what is happening. These changes can in fact enrich the language, but there is a downside: what are those of us who want to use ‘Literally’ or ‘Decimate’ in their older senses to do now? We shall have to use circumlocutions or invent new words. For instance, ‘Anticipate’ has now been lost to those who think it means ‘Expect’ but sounds cleverer. If I try to use ‘Anticipate’ in the older sense I am now likely to be misunderstood, and must say instead ‘Well, I did it myself before you got here,’ or some such.

Thus the language ‘progresses’. English does not have an equivalent of the Academie Francaise; in English, meaning is determined by majority usage, and the educated, particularly the classically educated, are an insignificant minority.

I just want to ask: is this always a good thing? Has something not been lost?

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