You’re Saying It Wrong

The implacable pedantry of the word police

In August, the outcry began. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked The Guardian. The Web site io9 announced “literally the greatest lexicographical travesty of our time,” while The Week bemoaned “the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done.” The offense? Google’s second definition of the word literally, which had been posted on Reddit: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

What the linguistic doomsayers failed to realize is that this definition is far from new. People have used literally to mean figuratively for centuries, and definitions to this effect have appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary since the early 1900s, accompanied by a note that such usage might be “considered irregular” or “criticized as a misuse.” But literally is one of those words that, regardless of what’s in the dictionary—and sometimes because of it—continues to attract an especially snooty breed of linguistic scrutiny. It is a classic peeve.

Peeving (whose name itself might cause peevery), or complaining about the way words are used, seems to have been around as long as language itself. In the 1600s, John Dryden peeved at his friend William Walsh’s failure to make “a due distinction between that, and who … That, ought alwayes to signify a thing; who, a person.” In the late 19th century, according to Jack Lynch, an English professor at Rutgers University and the author of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, peevers pounced on the newly minted electrocute, a mash-up of electrify and execute. “The fussiest person alive today would not complain about that,” Lynch says. Nor would most of us worry about snuck, which emerged in the 1800s as an alternative to sneaked, and which at the time “was considered crass and terrible,” according to Kory Stamper, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer.

As with literally, many of these words have been clarified with a usage note or marked “nonstandard” in dictionaries, but that doesn’t keep people from peeving. If language change is bound to happen irregardless [1], why do so many of us resist it? We peeve for a myriad of [2] reasons, nearly as many as there are words to peeve about: because we tend to believe, incorrectly, that dictionaries dictate language usage rather than reflect it; because each generation takes a strange joy in believing that the next is set to destroy everything good and holy; because it feels good to demonstrate our presumed intellectual superiority; and because we cling to the rules we think we know. (Though we’d be wise to remember a phenomenon noted by Steve Kleinedler, the executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary—and proved by many a letter to The Atlantic’s copy desk—in which “as people are pointing out mistakes, they introduce mistakes into their condemnations.”)

“There’s probably also a feeling of anxiety when a shared standard appears to be threatened,” explains Steven Pinker, a language expert and psychology professor at Harvard. “Human cooperation depends on common knowledge of arbitrary norms, which can suddenly unravel. If the norms of language were truly regulated by an authority, this would be a concern. In fact, they emerge by a self-adjusting consensus.”

As long as language is changing, people will peeve, and as long as people can communicate, language will change. History suggests that even the most vociferous peevery is unlikely to result in a word or usage being eradicated from a dictionary, but “contrary to predictions of decline going back centuries,” says Pinker, “we’re not grunting like Tarzan.”

Thank goodness for that. His syntax was awful [3].

A Popular History of Peeves

[1] Irregardless Merriam-Webster may admit that irregardless is a word, but the dictionary still instructs readers to “use regardless instead.”

[2] Myriad Peevers insist that myriad should be used only as an adjective—“myriad reasons” rather than “a myriad of reasons”—but Merriam-Webster approves of both usages.

[3] Awful Formerly used to convey actual awe, of the majestic-waterfall or wrath-of-God variety; now a synonym for bad.

Hopefully Peevers recoil from the use of hopefully to mean “it is hoped” rather than “in a hopeful manner”—“hopefully we make it in time” versus “she sighed hopefully”—despite the fact that Merriam-Webster describes this use as “entirely standard” for the adverb.

Could care less If you have no caring left in your being, then you technically could not care less.

Decimate Because the word’s Latin root means “tenth,” peevers insist that when you say “the Sox decimated the Tigers” you mean “the Sox reduced the Tigers by 10 percent.”

Momentarily Will the plane be landing for just a moment, or is it merely time to stow our tray tables?