August 15, 2013

Yes Language Evolves, But…

Rondall Reynoso

dictionary-pictureI think everyone on Facebook has a few grammar nerds who regularly post about things like the Oxford Comma or rant about the improper use of the word “literally.” While, I’m not real aggressive about these issues (yes I have an opinion about the Oxford Comma but I don’t always broadcast it), however, I have a profound appreciation for these guardians of language.

Today, I shared this CNN article that discusses how dictionaries are adding to the definition of the word literally to include figurative usage. For example, Google’s definition of literally now includes, “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” The article points out that Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries have added similar non-literal definitions.

I posted the article with the comment, “This is so sad!” A couple of friends rightly pointed out that dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive and such a change is appropriate.

But, it still bothers me. So, I had to take some time to really figure out why. Here it is:

I have no issue with language changing. Sometimes word meanings shift slowly as the nuances of a language shifts. Sometimes new terms are adopted that are more descriptive or reflective of innovations. For example, converting the proper noun Google in the verb “google” seems entirely appropriate as Google was integral in enabling an action that was not available a few years back. Some times we take a word such as “cool” and intentionally use a variant meaning and that meaning becomes codified in our language. I grew up in California so I am guilty of way over using this colloquialism. I would have less issue with this latest change in the dictionaries if it were born out of an ironic use of the word “literal” to mean “figurative.” Unfortunately though, this change was born out of ignorance. It isn’t that people are being ironic, they simply don’t know the difference between figurative and literal. If a portion of people thought the color green was the color red would we adopt a secondary meaning for green? Maybe. But, sometimes I think it is better to just let people know they don’t know what a word means.

Rondall Reynoso


Rondall is an artist, scholar, and speaker. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Lee University in Cleveland, TN. He holds an MFA in Painting and an MS in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and is completing a Ph.D. in Art History and Aesthetics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

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  • What a great point about the change being born out of ignorance! We should be striving to become a more creative people. Unfortunately, this change means that we’ve literally become a less creative people when it comes to our language. (See what I did there?)

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