Feb. 23 2015 05:21 PM

Amnesty for ignorance is what it is


Apologies for addressing this issue belatedly, but it only recently became known to me. Apparently, a little more than a year ago—quite silently and with minimal brouhaha—Webster's Dictionary (and pretty much all the others) changed the definition of the word "literally" so that it included the way many people tend to misuse it, which is to emphasize a point.

Up till now, the definition of "literal" has always been (paraphrasing): the primary or explicit meaning of a word or phrase. For example, if a friend asked how the concert was and you said, "It was literally on fire," that would be incorrect—unless you were talking about Hendrix at Monterey, where he poured lighter fluid on a Stratocaster and literally set it ablaze. Similarly, if you were to ask about the Stones show at Altamont, it would be grammatically correct to answer, "It was a riot, literally."

However, some people use the word to express emphasis, such as, "I was literally freezing my ass off." Well, no, actually, you were just cold. If you were literally freezing your ass off, your buttocks would slide from your backside and shatter to pieces on the ground because, well, frozen ass is quite brittle. But now that the wordlords have expanded the definition to include emphasis, you can say you were freezing your ass off and be grammatically correct.

Here's the thing: I'm not one of these language fusspots who believes that words should never be altered. We must always review our vocabulary to change or cull words that no longer work adequately (if they even ever did). Take the words "flammable" and "inflammable." Did you know they mean the same thing? Yup, they're both used to describe things that can easily be set on fire. Well, what kind of dumbass shiite is that? We need to redefine inflammable to mean what it should always have meant—"not easily combustible," like a rock, or a brick, or the brain of the person who defined "inflammable." Same with "ravel" and "unravel," as they both mean what "unravel" means—to unwind. 

And while we're tinkering with the language, let's fix some of these spelling issues, such as the "I" before "E" except after "C" rule because, well, who died and made "C" king? Why on Earth do we even need that exception? I know, I know, there's an exception to every rule, right? Well, why can't some rules have no exceptions? Hence "rule." How about we have an exception to the rule that there's an exception to every rule? From now on, if there is an "I" in a word and there is an "E" in the word, the "I" comes before "E"—no exceptions! And I don't give a good goddamn what "C" has to say about it! Nor do I care how it's going to affect the cheldrin, the cheldrin—what about the cheldrin?

The point is, I'm all for the evolution of our vocabulary, but we can't be willy-nilly about it. We need the word "literally" to mean only what it used to mean because it distinguished the figurative from the literal. For example, say you're bringing your group a round of shots from the bar. Upon returning, you are informed that "Bill had to go let the bear out of the cave—literally."

Now, the way literally was formerly defined, you would instantly know that Bill—who happens to be a zookeeper—returned to work to tend the grizzly exhibit. But, now, with the expanded definition, it could also mean he went to the bathroom because he had a very large and angry poop to expel. This figuratively burns my hide. How are we supposed to know the difference anymore? 

In the past, I would have understood, unequivocally, that Bill returned to work, so I might as well drink his shot. But see, now, with the added definition, it's entirely likely he will return from the bathroom and say, "Hey, where's my shot?" and get all mad at me for drinking it, which will turn into a shouting match, causing me to say some things that can't be unsaid ("bears are stupid, and so are you!"), causing him to unfriend me on Facebook and stop taking my calls, which would truly suck, because he was helping me land a job at the sea-cucumber exhibit, which features such adorable little animals that you just wanna hold and cuddle and—well, are you feeling me? This whole thing—it's a travesty!

"Travesty," incidentally, was used incorrectly in that last sentence. It doesn't mean what you think it means—a miscarriage of justice. Rather, "travesty" means an imitation that is grossly incorrect. Ah, but who cares? The wordlords will change the definition soon enough. After all, isn't that the reason "literally" was changed? Because so many people have been using it incorrectly that the glossarians simply threw up their hands in defeat and legitimized the incorrect usage, which is like legalizing shoplifting because people do it anyway.

Amnesty for ignorance is what it is. And for the record, I'm not being judgemental toward people who don't know how to use the word "literally" any more than I'm judgemental toward people who don't know how to spell "judgmental." I'm judging the wordlords. Because there are to kinds of people in this world, those who know the difference between "two" and "to" and those whose job it is to always remind us of the difference—Webster's and the rest. They are supposed to protect and serve the language, yet they murdered a perfectly useful word right in the face and dumped it in a ditch like a roadkilled 'coon.

Write to ed@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Edwin Decker blogs at www.edwindecker.com. Follow him on Twitter @edwindecker or find him on Facebook.

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