English is, literally, going to pot

It is literally the biggest semantics story of the week: the informal use of the word “literally” – a term used for emphasis when a statement isn’t true – has been included as a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. Writers have responded, protesting convincingly that we are breaking up the English language – we’re like so many monkeys tossing around a Ming vase, the richest cultural property we possess.

It’s immeasurable, but unquestionably there is more written communication nowadays than there has ever been. Consequently, we don’t handle language with care any more. Beyond “literally”, there is a load of other peeves one encounters in modern communication, both verbal and written.

Each of them could be taken as another sign of endemic decay. The word whose mishandling I feel sorriest for is “historic”.

Traditionally, historic meant something grand and noble. For example, Tolstoy’s declaration as to why we are all here: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal aims of humanity.” It is the kind of word that traditionally gave you a warm glow.

But check out a slew of recent usages and you will find the word “historic” slimed by the poison berry juice of Scotland Yard’s Operation Yewtree. Take, for example, the following from the Daily Telegraph of July 18: “The Jimmy Savile scandal has fuelled hundreds of extra allegations about historic sex attacks, according to the Office for National Statistics.” 


How could such unspeakable offences against children be tied with Tolstoy’s “historic, universal aims of humanity”?

I also object to the suffix “like”, which has become a kind of vocal lubricant, as in “I went, like, and told him face to face, like, that really, like, it’s not my responsibility, etc, etc.” What’s this little linguistic slimeball doing? It fills cracks. In an ugly way.

Next: “inappropriate”, as in “inappropriate touching” (back, alas, to Savile). It would only work if the word “propriety” meant anything in contemporary speech and if there were some agreement as to what “proper” is.

It’s a moral criterion that belongs in the Republic of Pemberley, the world of Jane Austen. More precise epithets should be found. It’s not offensive, but timid.

Robust is a word tossed about by those inveterate trashers of language: politicians, officials and the spokespeople of commerce. Too often, companies claim to operate “a robust programme”, which means sweet fanny adams. What, God help one, is a “robust approval programme”? A useful word (robust, even) has been annihilated and dragged in to express a kind of “we’re gonna tough it out” mentality. 

A new acronym must be adopted: SOL. Save our literacy. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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