‘Next in criminality to him who violates the laws of his country, is he who violates the language.’
Walter Savage Landor, 1775–1864
Well ladies, judging by the absence of a ‘she’, it looks like you got away with it. Walter has either been slack in laying down of parameters for the damned, or thinks it’s fine for females to smash grammatical rules and mangle syntax. Men, be careful. Remember to conjugate correctly if you don’t want to compound your punishment for that robbery you committed last week.
But in our globalised world – where English gets rebranded Globish – it seems violations of so called language rules are quite acceptable, as long as we achieve communication. Solecism is a thing of the past. Fair enough I suppose. Walter should probably relax and accept the fluidity ... Insert at this point whatever liberal exposition of living and evolving languages [blah, blah, yawn, etc.] that you like.
However, this classicist’s quote does give me an opportunity to hop onto a hobby horse and say ‘No! There are some lines we must not cross!’ I’m speaking very specifically about the word ‘literally’. In recent months I’ve been trying to protect the virtue of this poor, oppressed, battered word.
A couple of anecdotes to illustrate the point: Exhibit A – some months ago I walked into a grocer for a pint of milk and as I was handing over my pennies, a young man walked in speaking on the phone to his friend; ‘He’s killing me, literally’ is what he said. Exhibit B – during a presentation at work, a certain high ranking manager uttered ‘before … the company was literally on its knees.’
Oh dear [my head wearily slumps] … To my shopping friend I would say, ‘Well you look perfectly healthy, hale, hearty and whole to me. I see no grim reaper sneaking about. Although I do concede that your sentence would be accurate if you were aware that somebody was slowly poisoning you, subsequently resulting in your death.’ To my manager friend I simply say, ‘I never knew that companies had knees. That’s incredible!’
Naturally I said this to neither, not wanting to be punched by an east London native or sacked. Anyway, who likes a know-it-all? Whoops, did I just write these paragraphs? Too late now, I can’t stop. The hobby horse stumbles on.
You see, we are killing this word and rendering its meaning redundant. If I come back from meeting a now ex-girlfriend in a knife shop and say to my friend, ‘She literally stabbed me in the back’, what do I mean? Do I mean it metaphorically and idiomatically or literally? Did she or didn’t she? Well because of all those … [lost for the word I shake my fist and splutter] out there I don’t know any more. ‘Yeah, yeah but you know from the context’, you say. Not a good enough defence. I prefer accuracy and clarity.
How would you feel if you were a highly specialised adverb reduced to the mere station of exaggerating someone’s dull story? It’s like using a thoroughbred racehorse to pull a plough.
Please, I implore you all to leave this word alone and even defend it when you hear it viciously attacked. Lexicographers have even had to list it as an intensifier alongside its more precise meaning much to my disgust. It has been abused at least since 1926; and yes, I am sad enough to have come across a dictionary published then to check. There was I thinking that we all spoke beautifully proper English back in the day.
You can have your kidz, niteclub, skool, ‘He were …’, double negatives, split infinitives, even 'I'm loving it', but I beg you to be gentle with this word.