English is one of the most dynamic and adaptable languages in the world. While near neighbours such as France have committees in place to approve new and changing facets of their language, English is effectively “open source”; it is possibly the closest our culture gets to true democracy, with its evolution entirely dependent on the way the people decide to use it. The freely editable nature of English is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it makes our language remarkably diverse and imaginative, not to mention both contemporary and timeless. On the other hand, if as proofreaders we don’t keep up with this constant development, it can lead to all sorts of confusion!
One word that always causes a bit of a stir among strict linguists is “literally”. Originally meaning “letter by letter”, the word is now used more generally to describe situations in an exact or truthful way, e.g. There are literally hundreds of stations on the London Underground. However, much to the fury of language pedants (myself included), people seem happier than ever to play fast and loose with this meaning, using “literally” in situations that couldn’t possibly be interpreted in a literal sense: If my dad sees that dent in his car he will literally explode; I literally died of embarrassment.
Astonishingly, though, this usage of “literally” is so common that major dictionaries including OED now list it as an informal definition, and so to all intents and purposes it is now a correct form of English. While it would still be incorrect in formal communication, we language sticklers no longer have any right to complain about it in a conversational setting.
When I discovered this, I realised I hadn’t been keeping up to date with the most recent developments in English and quickly researched all the most recent words to have been officially coined as part of our language, unsurprisingly including many terms that a few years ago simply didn’t exist: lolcat, duck-face, live-stream, Redditor, etc. However, my usage of English is far more than just a couple of years out of date: to my horror, I discovered that despite the recent fuss around “literally”, the informal definition has in fact been included in OED since 1903!
In a way, then, although it may seem our language is changing and growing at a pace it is impossible to keep up with, it is also worth remembering that like other evolutionary processes any lasting change takes time. In another century’s time, people may have no idea what a lolcat is, and may still be debating the usage of “literally”! The role of the dictionary, of course, is not to tell us what to do, but rather to chronicle all these changes for our present and future guidance.
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