It’s Like Literally an Upheaval….

August 23, 2013 by totalityservices

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What does it take to make it into one of the most select of clubs – a dictionary?

Language evolves: okay, fact, that’s one hackneyed declaration. But what means do we have to track the changes that occur? Should there be any sort of criteria to decide when a word or a new meaning becomes a fully-fledged linguistic entity?

Some countries, such as France or Spain, have a linguistic authority that can decide to accept any evolution officially. There may be discrepancies between official words and those used daily at times, but overall there is a set of rules that can be safely referred to. English can boast nothing like that and is left struggling in the grey area of neologisms.

What I’m interested in is the way in which changes are recorded. For instance, how long and how often should a word be used before the ultimate recognition arrives and the doors of the dictionary finally open for it?

Take this scene in the Big Bang Theory, when Penny’s cute but not so bright upstairs new boyfriend Zack exclaims, “Really? I haven’t been to a comic book store in literally a million years”. Sheldon’s sarcastic, spiteful reaction is probably the one all fervent supporters of proper English would have, i.e. pointing the finger and bemoaning illiteracy. Most however probably don’t cringe any more at this improper use of the word. “Literally” is doing or saying something “in a literal way or sense”, the OED says. Or at least it used to.

The new meaning of the word, reflecting its modern use as a way to add emphasis, was added to the OED, the closest thing to an authority English has, back in September 2011, eons ago in our fast moving linguistic space. Surprisingly enough, it went quite unnoticed at the time. The recent outcry, therefore, does not come from the inclusion, but from the realisation that some people, even prominent figures, have been wrongly accused of using the word in, well, not a literal sense.

It’s like linguistic Darwinism. Words and meanings evolve as we do and the process is speeding up with the internet. An expression can go viral and become familiar in our linguistic landscape even before we are aware of it. It may then disappear just as quickly.

In an interview with the Daily Mail [1] Fiona McPherson, a senior OED editor, highlighted that their “job is to describe the language people are using. The only reason this sense is included is because people are using it in this way”. As often as not, empiricism rules supreme. It’s also more democratic, with changes taking place from the bottom up. The criteria are a subtle blend of popularity, variety of sources, importance, convenience, and likelihood to last. Yep, that’s a complete bet and some words may well become obsolete even quicker than they became fashionable.

But wait there’s more. The OED regularly publishes updates to keep in touch with the way we speak and from the latest one in June [2] you may now “Tweet” about “flash mobs”.

My personal favourite? Muggle.

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