The abuses of ‘literally,’ and how nice thoughts can help.

Normally, I am more of a descriptive linguist than a prescriptive one. Language, after all, is a living dynamic thing that is constantly in use and being changed by its speakers. New words get picked up, old words are forgotten, and over the years, many meanings drift into something else entirely. Occasionally, however, I want to put my prescriptivist foot down in the name of clarity.

The goal of language is to communicate ideas as clearly as possible, which makes the hazards of generic words or multiple meanings all the more challenging. Recently, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has accepted the new popular meaning of ‘literally’, which is literally the opposite of the actual definition. This is unfortunate, since it pretty much renders the word useless and condemns it to join the generic emphasis ranks with ‘very’ and ‘really.’

Literally

Words do change over time, and this one may have literally drifted too far to be useful in its older context. It’s sad, because it is such a good word, and has a wealth of nuances and connotations, particularly in its complete rejection of figurative interpretation, which none of its synonyms quite capture. That said, this is English, and if we need a word with a particular meaning, we’ll probably just steal it from somewhere else.

Whenever I get annoyed by changing word usage, I try to remind myself of two things: How much that word has probably changed before I first heard it, and ‘nice.’ I’ll get to ‘nice’ in a moment.

‘Literal’ has a fairly straightforward etymology, considering how long it’s been with us. We got ‘letter’ from Old French in the 13th century, from which we eventually derived literal and literature (Late Middle English), then alliteration in the early 17th century. The French got it from the Latin ‘littera’ which meant either a written communication or an alphabetic symbol, and both meanings got carried through to English. The Latin ‘litteralis’ also tagged along, meaning ‘of a letter,’ which contributed more directly to the derivation of ‘literal’ or literally.’

In essence, the word literally hasn’t changed much until recently, so on we go to ‘nice.’ Here’s a word with a more interesting drift of meanings. It started out as two words in Latin, ‘ne-’ (not) and ‘scire’ (know), which gave rise to ‘nescire’ meaning to not know, or to be ignorant. This gave us the word ‘nescience,’ which we still have in English as an adjective meaning ignorance or lack of knowledge, but that didn’t get added until the early 17th century. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Nescience

Middle English picked up ‘nice’ from Old French around the 14th century with the meaning of ‘simple or silly,’ and it rapidly picked up connotations of wanton and foolish. This can be seen in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, where he speaks of ‘nice wenches,’ meaning disreputable women. It developed a range of largely negative senses, from ‘dissolute’, ‘ostentatious, showy’, ‘unmanly, cowardly’, and ‘delicate, fragile’ to ‘strange, rare’, and ‘coy, reserved.’ Around the 16th century, it started to be used in a more positive sense, as ‘fine, subtle or precise,’ as in “a nice distinction.” Then it gently tumbled into ‘pleasant, kind,’ from the mid 18th century on.

So if a word can go through that impressive a range of meanings and connotations without bothering us, I suppose I can put my prescriptive stomping-shoe back in the closet. I’ll just hunt down a new word that I can use instead of literally going crazy. Isn’t that nice?

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Why English is Spectiferous for Coining New Words.

English has a long history of adopting vocabulary from other languages. As James Nicoll put it: “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” Yet we don’t stop there. English is a bit more open to change than many languages, what with our verbal kleptomania and our muddled origins, and this seems to make us fond of both portmanteaus (words created by combining two other words), and coining brand new words.

Possibly more than any other language, English speakers just invent words on the spot, and some of them catch on, eventually being added to the official lexicon. As language is all about communication, any word that successfully communicates your idea is then language. The best example of this in a general sense is an anecdote of mine from high school. I once had a friend with a penchant for mispronouncing words. When it was remarked on that what he had said was not a word, his response was always the same: “Did you understand what I meant? Yes. Then it’s a word.”

Though probably not the main factor, a good part of English’s word invention habit results from grammatical conditions. Differences or errors in pronunciation are less likely to be problematic in English as positional context is more important and we have comparatively simple declensions and conjugations. This means that distinguishing between similar sounding words, or assigning probable meaning to an unknown word, is done partly by its position in the sentence, and there is rarely confusion as to what type of word it is.

The probable primary reason why word invention works so well in English is that we have a strong association between sound and meaning. I’m not talking about onomatopoeia here, though we have plenty of that as well, like ‘buzz’ for the sound a bee makes, and so on. What I’m referring to here is a different type of association, that of particular vowels or consonants which automatically invoke a particular attribute or feeling. Many other languages have this association as well, though not usually to the same degree.

High front vowels such as in ‘life’ and ‘tweet’ are often judged to be bright, small or cheery, while low back vowels as in ‘sad,’ ‘dark,’ and ‘mug’ are interpreted as being dim, large or dull. Word endings with a high vowel (-ie, -y) or a lateral consonant (-l, -le, -elle) are considered diminutive or less serious, and words ending with affricate sounds like ‘-ch’ are often considered unpleasant. So when native English speakers hear a nonsense word like ‘crulch,’ the immediate association for most of us is that, while we have no idea what it actually means, we assume it to be something unpleasant, clunky, and possibly sharp or sticky.

Sibilants like ‘s’ and fricatives like ‘sh’ often conjure a meaning related to soft, quiet, subtle, or subdued, which can be seen in words like squishy, plush, shady, sash, satin, silk, shadow, sappy, sheep, shame, sheesh, shush, shun, shy, and splash…. Sorry, got a bit carried away there. A few simple changes to the sound, like the addition of hard consonant sounds, can often give it a whole new connotation, as in sharp, stick, spit, swig, or shot. And those are just a few examples from the hundreds of complex, and under-studied, phoneme associations in English.

Shakespeare is famous for coining new words, many of which are now fully integrated and official. Words like ‘besmirch,’ which in context is recognizable almost instantly as meaning ‘to damage or soil one’s reputation,’ partly on the basis of its sibilant and affricate sounds. It conjures to mind similar sounding words, like soil, squelch, squish, switch, smirk, and itch, among others. ‘Gossip,’ ‘puking,’ and ‘bump’ are others that he invented, which likely stayed with us at least partially because their sounds fit so well with their meaning in the minds of English speakers.

jabberwocky

Probably the best example of how nonsense words can be understood based largely on their sounds comes from Lewis Caroll. In Jabberwocky, almost half of the principle words were invented, and can only be understood because either they are an obvious portmanteau, or they are phonetically constructed to convey a certain impression. Even without the context of the poem, words like ‘mimsy,’ ‘slithy,’ and ‘vorpal’ give us a very good idea of what they might mean just by their sound.

Numerous authors and personalities have contributed new words over time, such as J.K. Rowling’s ‘muggle,’ Rudyard Kipling’s ‘grinching,’ or Nick Kaltenbronn’s ‘quiz’. The Oxford dictionary adds about a hundred new words every year, many of which are acronyms or portmanteaus, but some of which are pure invention. If their sound fits and the word becomes popular enough, they inevitably become established words. In addition, rare, freshly minted, or newly assembled words seem to hold a fascination for many of us. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites now dedicated to coined words and portmanteaus in English, and even a few designed to help you out with randomly inventing new words.

Isn’t English frabjous?