In my previous post on this topic, I whittered on a bit about people using their own meanings of words. This is, I have discovered, called the Humpty-Dumpty Principle of Definitions. This is named after the character in Lewis Carrol’s “Alice Through The Looking Glass”. Here is an extract:
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
Some people do it accidentally, the classic slip of the tongue. My late father described an elderly friend of my late mother as being “too erotic”. Eyebrows were raised until he went on to say, “you can never tell what she’ll do next.” Eyebrows were lowered as we realised he meant to say “erratic”.
The thing is that language is continually in a state of flux and words do change in meaning and whilst pedantic folk like me, fight a gallant rearguard action, sheer weight of numbers doom us to failure. As Fredrick Schiller wrote ‘against stupidity the very gods themselves do contend in vain’.
The first word is literally
Literally : in a literal way or sense, exactly’.
As in “He failed his driving test when he followed the instruction ‘go straight ahead at the roundabout ‘ literally and drove onto the roundabout.
To my mind the word ‘literally” is inextricably linked to Jamie Redknapp, the former footballer turned television pundit. There are literally dozens of examples * of his use of ‘literally’. Here are just three.
Wayne Rooney is literally on fire – better call the fire service!
He literally left Ben Haim for dead – they outlined the body with the referee’s foam spray.
These new footballs literally explode off your boot – it is a surprise they passed the health and safety checks.
(Sadly his best bit of commentary doesn’t use the L-word, but it is too good not to repeat: “Steven Gerrard makes runs into the box better than anyone. So does Frankie Lampard.”)
Jamie, I hope he’ll excuse the familiarity, wasn’t the first, that was the author Frances Brooke in 1796, nor the most famous, Mark Twain used it in 1876, but I’d like to think that he was in some way responsible for it’s inclusion in the dictionary.
In 2011 the OED added to the definition that informally the word could be used for emphasis without being actually true.
As an amusing aside no one seemed to notice this until 2013, when it aroused the ire of Daily Telegraph readers who were, one supposes foaming at the mouth with incandescent rage. As for the two years it took people to notice, the dictionary editor commented wryly, “it seems to have literally slipped in under the radar”.
Next time – crescendo
* how brave was that? Did I get the correct usage?