I’ve always had a healthy respect for the Webster’s dictionary. In my line of work, it’s pretty much a given.
But the powers that be over at Merriam-Webster have gone too far with their latest proclamation that “literally” and “figuratively” can be used interchangably — even though they’re opposites.
If someone tells you, “I was so embarrassed, I literally died right on the spot,” you have to wonder if you’re talking to a ghost. Why? Because literally is supposed to mean “truthfully,” “in the basic sense” or “matter-of-fact.”
That sounds pretty definitive to me. The person I’m talking to is either dead, a liar or is related to Lazarus — not too much wiggle room there.
But hey, Webster now says, you can use “literally” to add emphasis to a statement. And besides, they probably figure, so many people use “literally” the wrong way, let’s just make it mean the same as “figuratively.” Who will be the wiser?
This new twist on the language isn’t just a little odd, like “flammable” and “inflammable” meaning the same thing. This latest incarnation of verbal indifference is an insult to everyone who ever learned to speak correct English — and that’s a sizeable number of us.
I blame our culture for a lot of this. Over time, we’ve gotten lax about speaking and writing correctly — blame Facebook, texting and Twitter for some of that, I’m sure. When enough people use a word or phrase incorrectly, it becomes the norm. At that point, we have to decide as a society if the norm is acceptable in everyday speech. In this case, Webster’s has decided it is — much to my chagrin, as an old-school journalist.
I remember several years ago, when Webster’s decided that it was acceptable to pronounce “February” without the first “r.” Since so many people said, “FEB-yoo-ary,” that became an acceptable pronunciation. Was this cultural evolution — or just plain laziness?
In Weird Al Yankovic’s hilarious video, “Word Crimes” — a take-off on the pop hit “Blurred Lines” — the author runs through a litany of grammar and spelling mistakes that have crept into our culture, including interchanging “literally” and “figuratively.” I laughed hard at this creative and clever video, but I’m not laughing quite so loudly now, since Webster took away one of Weird Al’s best arguments.
In reviewing the video — which is really educational, actually — I spotted several common grammar problems I see and hear nearly every day. I know I’m in the news business, but I don’t understand why folks don’t grasp the difference between “less” and “fewer,” “its” and “it’s” or don’t know when to use “good” or “well.”
The misuse reflects a society that has de-emphasized the importance of proper English. And from an intellectual standpoint, that is a sad development.
Speaking and writing well shouldn’t be dismissed as unnecessary for anyone but authors, scholars and politicians. Writing proficiency and command of the language are valuable assets that can lead to better communication, higher-paying jobs and positions of leadership.
Of course, it’s a little difficult to make that case to a teenager who regularly substitutes letters and numbers for words when texting — and BTW, that can happen B4 U know it.
I guess I’ll just have to learn to roll with some of the changes to the dictionary — and to our culture at large. After all, I’ll be 60 next year, so officially I must accept my professional curmudgeon status.
But Webster had better not decide to put an “X” in the word “espresso” to make it “expresso.”
If they do, I think my head is going to explode. Literally.
Dave Miller is deputy managing editor of the Killeen Daily Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-501-7543.