Language change is literally crucial…

I’ve given up on the word literally, as, it turns out, have others.

We all have aspects of linguistic usage which irk us, and for a long time mine was the word “literally“, almost never used correctly (or, at least, as per the traditional dictionary definition).

Yet the simple fact is, as I have preached before on these pages, language change happens. It is necessary.

For example, the word for “today” in older West Germanic was “hiu tagu“, probably originally an instrumental case meaning “by [the/this] day”. In Classical Latin it was “hodie“, itself deriving from “hoc die“, a dative of similar meaning.

Over time, “hiu tagu” came to be replaced entirely in English and even almost entirely in Dutch (which has “vandaag“, “of-day”; although it retains the adjective “huidig“, translating roughly as “today’s”). However in German it remains, as “heute” – as final ‘e’ has been dropped in pronunciation increasingly over the past century or so (to the extent it has even been removed as a marker of the dative singular in all but exceptional usage), thus effectively leaving the pronunciation in all but the most careful speech as a single syllable, “heut“.

Hodie” has fared better, surviving into Spanish as “hoy“, into Portuguese as “hoje“, and into Italian as “oggi“. The peculiarity – but, it turns out, perhaps not the peculiarity – is French, which does in fact retain “hui” but now requires it to be preceded with “au jour de“, written as a single word.

Think about it, however – what kind of nonsense is that? The word “hui” already derives from “by the day”, so why on earth would you proceed it with something which means “by the day of”? The term, in origin, now means “by the day of by the day”, a weird duplication.

French is not all that peculiar, however (at least not in this sense). Over the past century there is clear evidence from German newspapers and contemporary writing that the single word (pronounced as a single syllable) “heut(e)” is being replaced with the phrase “am heutigen Tag” – again, literally, a weird duplication meaning effectively “on the this day’s day”. In other words, almost the precise same thing has happened more recently in German as happened in the (essentially unrelated) French language some time before. (There is perhaps even an equivalence in English, where there is a tendency to replace “now” with some long-winded phrase such as “at this moment in time“, much to the annoyance of the purists and literalists.)

In other words, due to language change, sometimes daft things happen. Words do change meaning; and very often in fairly predictable ways. Has “literally” lost its meaning? Perhaps, but is this any different from what happened to “really“, which has completely lost its original meaning of “in reality“; or even “very” which was originally loyal to its French origins (cf. “vrai“) and meant “in truth“?

For all that, I haven’t yet given up on the word “crucial“, vastly overused by football commentators to mean “very important” or even merely “seemingly very important at the time” (in fact it derives from the Latin “crux” and means a crossing point, in other words “decisive”, not merely “important”). However, it’s a losing battle on my own terms!

Language change is literally necessary. It’s crucial that it happens (oh yeah, we’ve done away with the subjunctive too). Even at this moment in time…


One thought on “Language change is literally crucial…

  1. factual says:

    In the case of literally “I was literally gutted” it is surprising that its meaning has changed to mean “metaphorically”; there is nothing in the word literally that suggests metaphor.

    My own word of interest is “fulsome”. Its dictionary definition is (if it hasn’t been changed) “insincere”. So “I offered a fulsome apology” would mean an insincere apology. Even amongst very well educated people, I hear this word being used wrongly. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever heard the word used in its correct meaning. This is, I think, because “fulsome” sounds like it should mean “full” and “generous”.

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