No, we haven’t “broken English.”

A recent article over at The Guardian asks the question, “Have we literally broken the English language?”

The gripe stems from the fact that the word “literally,” meaning (and only meaning, dammit, if you listen to the prescriptivists) “to the letter, in a literal way or sense,” has now been updated with an additional definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can now be “‘used for emphasis rather than being actually true.” Google’s added definition states that literally can be used “to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling”.

Randall Munroe riffed on this some time ago in his wonderful XKCD:


Cushlamochree, people – get a grip.

One of the first things I learned when I started studying historical linguistics is that language is about as fixed as the clouds of Jupiter. A course in Romance Philology, taught by the illustrious Madame A.M.L Barnett, had me watching the exquisite steps from Vulgar Latin into French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, Catalan, and Romansch [1] over the course of 800 years; it was intriguing to be able to chart the transformation of Vulgar Latin blastemare[2] into the Italian bestemmiare or the French blâmer (whence we get our word “blame”).

Let’s look at some examples from more recent history, and our own language:

  • Meat used to mean food in general; now it simply refers to the flesh of animals.
  • Meet used to mean “appropriate,” whereas now it means “to encounter.”
  • Corn used to refer to all kinds of grain, whereas now it means that great stuff we eat at picnics on the 4th of July. Amaizing, isn’t it? [3]
  • Actual meant “pertaining to an action;” it now means “real” or “genuine.”
  • Awful used to mean “full of awe” i.e. something wonderful, delightful, amazing, instead of “horrible” or “terrible.”
  • Besom, meaning “a broom,” is only encountered in very old texts like the Bible and rare literary references.

And on and on. In fact, have a look at the original text of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Middle English (late 1300’s) Modern English
This carpenter out of his slomber sterte,
And herde oon crien ‘water’ as he were wood,
And thoughte, “Allas, now comth Nowelis flood!”
He sit hym up withouten wordes mo,
And with his ax he smoot the corde atwo,
And doun gooth al; he foond neither to selle,
Ne breed ne ale, til he cam to the celle
Upon the floor, and ther aswowne he lay.
This carpenter out of his sleep did start,
Hearing that “Water!” cried as madman would,
And thought, “Alas, now comes down Noel’s flood!”
He struggled up without another word
And with his axe he cut in two the cord,
And down went all; he did not stop to trade
In bread or ale till he’d the journey made,
And there upon the floor he swooning lay.

If that doesn’t do it for you, let’s look at Beowulf:

Old English (8th-11th Century) Modern English
Ðá wæs on burgum Béowulf Scyldinga
léof léodcyning longe þráge
folcum gefraége — fæder ellor hwearf
aldor of earde — oþ þæt him eft onwóc
héah Healfdene héold þenden lifde
gamol ond gúðréouw glæde Scyldingas·
ðaém féower bearn forðgerímed
in worold wócun weoroda raéswan:
Heorogár ond Hróðgár ond Hálga til·
hýrde ic þæt Ýrse wæs Onelan cwén
Heaðo-Scilfingas healsgebedda.
Then was in boroughs, Beowulf the Scylding (Beaw),
beloved king of the people a long age
famed among the folk — his father having gone elsewhere,
elder on earth — until unto him in turn was born
high Half-Dane, he ruled so long as he lived
old and battle-fierce, the glad Scyldings;
to him four sons in succession
woke in the world, the leader of the legions:
Heorogar and Hrothgar and good Halga;
I heard that Yrse was Onela’s queen,
the War-Scylfing’s belovèd embraced in bed.

Yes, it’s English – even though some of the letters have long since fallen out of use. Anyone not familiar with the history of language would swear that this was another language altogether… which, in a sense, it was.

The bottom line is that usage drives language, not rules. Scream all you want about the Oxford Comma [4], in as little as 100 years, people may not even know that it ever existed; in 400 years, English as it is spoken today may no longer even be recognizable.

Having used and worked with and studied multiple languages over the course of a career, it’s my own feeling that folks who get their knickers in a twist about  how language should be used are basically holding up their hand to try to change the mighty Amazon in its course; “As well you might have piled dry leaves to stop Euroclydon!” [5] Language is going to change, whether you like it or not, whether you want it or not, and whether you complain about it or not.

That’s not to say that there is no need for rules or style – I cringe when I see people mistake “lose” and “loose,” or mix up “there,” “they’re,” and “their.” But these rules are in place for the sake of meaning and clarity, enforced largely by academics and journalists and publishers for their rarified purposes; authors regularly violate every conceivable regulation if it suits their good pleasure (have a look at e.e. cummings or James Joyce if you don’t believe me.)

In the end, then, the claim that adding a dictionary meaning for the “misuse” of a word is tantamount to “breaking English” is  folly, and naught more than clickbait. Sadly, about 99% of the Internet is made of such nonsense.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] And that list is by no means complete.

[2] Itself from the Late Latin blasphemare, which is visible as the ancestor of blaspheme, blasphemy

[3] Valid for Americans only. Other varieties of English still use this meaning, and refer to the stuff on the cob as maize.

[4] That’s for you, Melissa

[5] The Life and Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles, Church Educational System Manual

9 responses to “No, we haven’t “broken English.”

  1. The never-ending conflict between descriptive and presriptive grammar, isn’t it? Isn’t that the old conflict ever since grammar books and dictionaries were started? From my studies of historical linguistics I seem to remember that “the meaning of a word is defined by its usage”, meaning that – as you so very well illustrate – a language is forever changing and that a disctionary as well as a grammar can only record the present state.
    I’ve always been interested in the development of languages.
    Thanks for this posting!
    Best regards from southern Texas,
    P.S.: There’s another article in The Guardian in the same vein []

    • Thanks for the link to the additional article. Still, the author is missing the point when he talks about “despair” because language will do what language does, and trying to hold on to a particular snapshot in the name of “correctness” is an exercise in futility.

      That said, watching an entire generation or two lose their sense of the breadth and depth and majesty of language, the kind I referred to here, or the works of Joyce, or Göthe, or Dante, and reveling instead in 50 Shades of Pornography, is somewhat disheartening – but it’s their loss. The classics will remain, and if future generations cannot read them it will be their loss, not ours.

      • I agree re “despair”.
        Still, to my mind it works the following way with languages developing, dictionaries and grammars:
        Dictionaries/grammars record [=describe] a certain state of the language, and in that they are descriptive. But the moment they’re published, they become prescriptive. The language, of course, keeps developing/changing. So, after a while a new/current description is needed. And that becomes prescriptive again, and so on and so on.

  2. Yeah, I knew that was for me, you punk. 😉

    It isn’t worth the electrons to argue against all this. Thing is, though, you should know that you, too, are prescriptivist, though not as far toward their edge as one might be. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t care if one said “its” or “it’s”—you know perfectly well that messing that up doesn’t mean that people can’t understand the sentence.

    And you also know deep down that I have to be prescriptivist when I edit work that clients will use, work that could make them use us again or not.

    Hey, what happened to the original footnote #5? I actually did learn to read on Dick and Jane, but not at school. It was an accident.

    • The thing about lose-loose and its/it’s is not, as of yet, a point of contention, whereas the Oxford Comma is. There may come a time. Imagine the angst in the souls of the Greeks when they made the official switch from katharevousa to demotikí… Millions of schoolchildren cheered, no longer having to learn the difference between oxeia, dasei, and perispomeni, while older scholars wrung their hands and wept tears of anguish at the barbaric degeneration of their tongue…

      As for Dick and Jane, that sentence and footnote just did not seem to fit with the rest of the essay after I had finished, so out it went.

  3. While reading the Beowulf passage, I thought that “Hodor!” sounds like a name from that tale, and I literarily realized that Game of Thrones is a modern Beowulfean epic. It was Eddafying.

    Everything I wrote is sic, and should be cursed as is.

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