Recently, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum wrote about the word “literally.” It’s not OK, she argued, that the Oxford English Dictionary expanded the definition of “literally” to include “informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true.”
“If we cave on ‘literally,’” Daum wrote, “it will only be a matter of time before we'll be granting equal rights to ‘irregardless.’”
I like Meghan Daum. She’s a brilliant writer with a gift for finding fascinating new perspectives on every topic she touches. But on this matter, she’s just wrong.
To illustrate why, let me spin a tale.
Once upon a time, a hairy club-wielding person we’ll call Grug saw a hole in the side of a mountain. He went inside and noticed that water was no longer falling on his head. He hurried to tell some other hairy people about it. “Come see the, the ...” Grug didn’t have a word for his discovery, so he finished his sentence with “crob,” which derived from a term that, roughly translated, meant “Now kids, I don’t want you painting on the walls in here.”
Soon, others were setting out to find their own crobs. But by then, they were using the word “crob-a-licious,” a term coined by the pimpliest hairy people whose own offspring would go on to call them “cray-ibs,” eerily foreshadowing a popular MTV series.
Still, other hairy types began using “crob” to describe the hole you get in your tooth if you live past age 25.
Hairy people continued to spread far and wide, botching Grug’s coinage with each new generation. Over time, a crob was called everything from a koilos to a specus to, eventually, a cave.
Grug, a notorious curmudgeon, would have flipped in the stomach of the saber-toothed tiger that ate him had he known people would one day refer to him as a “cave man.”
“I’m a crob-man! A crob-man!” he would have shrieked. “Our language is going to Haruga in a hagblarsket!”
But things got worse. By the year 1700, ignoramuses had begun to completely disregard the fact that “cave” was a noun. They began using it as (gasp!) a verb. This surely brought out the Grug in a lot of people, who prophesied that the language was going to Hades in some kind of urn.
Just how catastrophic was this slide? Did this incessant erosion of Grug’s once perfect noun drag us down into some linguistic ghetto in which we’re all reduced to grunts and screeches?
On the contrary, this process created the perfect verb for Daum’s column. And it created the perfect irony to make my point: No one is caving on the word “literally.” To cave in means to fall away from solid ground. But in language, there is no solid ground. It’s an illusion caused by a failure to see the big picture.
Words change. And here’s the hard-to-swallow part: They often change through misuse. Sometimes it’s because people mangle an existing word, other times it’s because they use an old word in a new, “wrong” way. Either way, all the words we consider right were once wrong. The word “literally,” in the sense Daum prefers it, was once wrong.
What appears in the short term to be a “caving in” is just a dent in the unrelenting landslide that is language. I agree that it would be nice if people would use “literally” only in its strictest sense. It would be nice if no one ever uttered “irregardless” (which, by the way, is already in a lot of dictionaries). But that’s not how language works.
And if we think the evolution of “literally” should or can be stopped, we have no more historical perspective than Grug.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.