What do you do when society consistently misuses a word?
You change the definition of the word to conform to society’s ignorance, of course.
Wait. What? No. You can’t do that.
But that is exactly what the Oxford English Dictionary has done with the word “literally.”
By definition, literally means in a literal manner or sense; exactly. But in September 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary added the “informal” use of the word to its definition: used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.
Yes, this happened two years ago, but it just made ripples and headlines this week. It even caused Oxford English Dictionary Senior Editor Fiona McPherson to quip: “It seems to have literally slipped under the radar.”
Now, I’m a newspaper editor. I’m not a dictionary editor. But it seems to me that my job as a dictionary editor would be to preserve the language, not change it. McPherson disagrees. She said the dictionary’s job is to describe the language the way people are using it.
I knew there was one person I could turn to in my attempt to decipher whether the dictionary’s stance was right or wrong. That person was Grammar Moses – or, as most people know him, Sauk Valley Media Executive Editor Larry Lough.
“The dictionary is a whore. It has no principles. No scruples. No standards. It gives in to the last person it talked to,” Moses told me in an email. “It does not represent correctness or propriety. It represents popular usage, the latest thing, no matter how that might bastardize the language.”
How do you really feel, Larry?
In fairness to the Oxford English Dictionary, it seems every dictionary has jumped onto the ruin-the-language bandwagon.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has added a second definition: in effect; virtually.
And, as Moses pointed out, even The Associated Press has contributed to the destruction of the language. In its stylebook, AP now prefers “drive-thru” over “drive-through” and allows “hopefully” to mean “it is hoped.”
This shouldn’t be acceptable, no matter how you spin it or try to explain it away. We can’t let people who misuse the language slowly erode the language.
When does it stop? If enough people use words incorrectly (see “irony”) and long enough, will dictionaries continue to alter a definition?
If so, I say we start a push to use “dictionary” in place of “garbage.”
“Take that incorrect definition and throw it in the dictionary. And in the morning, I need you to take the dictionary to the curb so the dictionary man can pick it up and dump it in the landfill where it belongs.”
• Jason Schaumburg is editor of the Northwest Herald. This weekend, he hopes to shoot under 100 on the golf course for the first time this summer. Reach him at 815-459-4122 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Schaumy.