Gimme Shelter: Words, like, literally



How did the English language fare in 2016?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the last 12 months have been “unpresidented.”

A friend of mine, an attorney specializing in criminal defense, once described the law as “an empire of words. That’s all the law is — words.” But then he added that there must be a shared belief that the words mean something, that they’re printed on paper or scroll past on a screen for a reason, and people agree to abide by what is written or consequences will come. Without the words and our belief in them, darkness falls and we’re at sea.

Consider that idea in light of the Oxford Dictionaries (OD), one of the keepers of words, revealing that “post-truth” is its “International Word of the Year.” I suppose if we can survive “awesome sauce,” we can survive anything.

But then that’s one of the most baffling conundrums about humanity — people find ways to learn to live with absolutely anything, including the acceptance of a “post-truth” world.

OD’s Casper Grathwohl (really) was quoted that post-truth is on its way to being “one of the defining words of our time.”

On the OD’s short list for its word of the year was “courophobia,” an “extreme or irrational fear of clowns.” Irrational? Seems like common sense. And is there a connection between courophobia and post-truth?

Merriman Webster (MW) announced last week that its “Word of the Year” is “surreal.” The venerable dictionary publisher, working the irrational side of the street with its colleague, defined surreal as something “marked by the intense irrationality of a dream.” It took top honors because “it was looked up significantly more frequently by users in 2016 than it was in previous years, and because there were multiple occasions on which this word was the one clearly driving people to their dictionary.”

What’s missing is that surreal has lost it’s real meaning, which was to define a movement in the arts, and now describes anything — this year it’s politics and government — that is bizarre. The truth behind the word is — oh, who cares?

Being a word scold (a coinage!) has its joys. The feeling of superiority is heartening when bravely standing guard, outgunned and outmanned, at the gates of civilization in the lost cause of refusing to allow “price point” to pass, checking papers on “join the conversation,” and being vigilant when “physicality” tries to sneak by.

These words and phrases all come from Lake Superior State University’s (LSSU) 41st annual “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.”

It goes without saying that the ferocity and duration of winters in Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan, where LSSU resides, could tend to make folks a wee bit cranky when it comes to words. Or anything, for that matter. And as for “it goes without saying” — then why say it? yells the novelist David Lozell Martin whenever he hears this phrase.

Usually Mr. Martin is more reserved. He’s written extensively of his horror about the misuse of “literally,” noting that “literally means actual, without embellishment, or exaggeration. We turn meaning on its head when we use literally to embellish or exaggerate or mean ‘virtually.’ For example: ‘When I won the lottery, my jaw literally dropped to the floor.’ This means you have a serious medical problem.”

Mr. Martin, writing to Gimme Shelter, went further, as he is known to do: “Now the stupid, glib Oxford Dictionary has given ‘figuratively’ as one of the definitions for ‘literally’ and we have officially lost one of the great words in our mother tongue. The Oxford fuzz-brains say they are simply reflecting how the language is actually used. Although these changes would reflect how the language is actually being used, if words no longer have specific meaning, we lose the ability to communicate accurately, elegantly, specifically.”

I guess he wasn’t really so reserved, after all, calling the dictionary names.

Wherever you go in the world where English is spoken, which is, like, I mean, you know, everywhere, it’s sick, amiright, whatever, so, everywhere, and you like thank someone for something, like, they’ll tell you, “No problem.”

Which is O.K., but I always admired the reaction of a snooty Englishman who thanked a waiter setting down a dish in front of him, and instead of hearing “You’re welcome,” was told, “No problem.”

“I wasn’t anticipating one,” the Englishman replied.

That particular Englishman was the playwright Harold Pinter, who once said, “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Which is an altogether good thing, if you don’t dwell on the aphorism too deeply.

As in “literally,” which we’re nominating for Word of the Year for 2017, a good example of where to make a stand against the post-truth world.