We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability; shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay. Samuel Johnson
Maybe some prefer their flowers pressed dry in books. There are those with affectionate feelings toward the inflatable doll and the corpse. Surely, though, most of us seek life. Language, too, lives. We must take a deep breath and, like the people initially so put off by Darwinism, embrace reality, this time linguistic. Among the many benefits of doing so: wonder replaces disgust, curiosity replaces condemnation, and overall, you have a lot more fun. John McWhorter from Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally).
I have recently finished reading John McWhorter’s 2016 book on how the meanings of words evolve: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally). It is a book that looks at the way the meanings of words have changed and are changing right now. His central thesis is that we should be a lot more relaxed about what is going on. The book is full of revealing insights and you find yourself stopping every two or three pages, wowed by McWhorter’s latest gem. The linguist loves to analogise. He invokes fade-out endings in pop music, pre-ripped blue jeans, tool sheds, fads in baby names, junk DNA, living squid in the ocean vs. dead squid in a kitchen and the Victorian party game of creating a tableau vivant to get his ideas across.
The use of literally is one thing that is guaranteed to get any self-respecting pedant’s blood boiling. Thee word originally was another variation on indicating truth, more specifically exactness, as in “by the letter”. But words are not pressed flowers and it was inevitably going to morph into other meanings. As McWhorter points out, literally in its original meaning of by the letter no longer makes sense except as a metaphor. We were literally the only ones there; we were literally on the brink of a depression. There are no letters involved. Literally began to get more personal. It has become a way of venting, of attesting to the vividness of our personal sentiments when we are describing an experience we have had. I was literally dying of thirst. This is an area of language called pragmatics, the study of meaning in the interactional context, looking beyond literal meanings of words. Literally has become a discourse marker, a way to flag sincerity.
OK, so the meaning of words drift, but what irritates people is that this current use of literally is the direct opposite of what it should mean. But this is not unusual in the English language. There is an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms, terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Literally is one of them. The website Daily Writing Tips has an excellent list of 75 such terms. Here is a selection of other contronyms:
Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defence of one
Bolt: To secure, or to flee
Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement
Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse
Cleave: To adhere, or to separate
Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment
Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them
Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable
Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough
First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn
Fix: To repair, or to castrate
Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
Hold up: To support, or to impede
Left: Remained, or departed
Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent
Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm
Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights
Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office
Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect
Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal
Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part
Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely
Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use
Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty
Scan: To peruse, or to glance
Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them
Trip: A journey, or a stumble
Variety: A particular type, or many types
Wind up: To end, or to start up
Do such words create mass chaos? No, we are generally able to pick up the meaning from context. If you say you are bound for London, I don’t think that you are trussed up. When they say on CSI that they are going to dust for fingerprints, I don’t think Grissom is going to bring out the duster. If I read that the Bank of England is responsible for oversight of the financial system I don’t think they job is to fail to oversee the banks. Well, actually in that case…
I agree with McWhorter that is actually quite cool that a word can literally mean both itself and its opposite. This is what makes studying a language so much fun.
One part of the book that I found fascinating was when he explained the process of grammaticalization. This is a process of semantic change by which nouns and verbs which represent objects and actions become grammatical markers such as affixes, prepositions and auxiliary verbs. In the latter category he provides us with plenty of examples. The modal verb can comes from the Old English cunnan, which meant know, an etymology which is reflected in such words as canny and cunning. What’s more, the past tense of cunnan was a word pronounced “coothe,” from which the couth in uncouth comes. The uncouth person lacks know-how, that is the knowledge of how to behave in polite society. Another typical modal ought’ originally meant ‘owed’. He also looks at affixes. The suffix ‘-ly’ is a contraction of ‘like’, a word which originally meant body. In the case of a word such as slowly, the original form would have been slow-like. And the past tense ending ed, it comes from the proto-Germanic did, as in walk-did.
There is much more in this book. He defends irregardless, stating that it is human nature to try to make sure that words are strong enough to do the job required. For instance, whelm used to mean what “overwhelm” means now. He also talks about