I wouldn’t have wanted to be an editor if I wasn’t passionate about language and clarity of communication. It hurts me to see words that have a particular meaning used in a way that makes no sense. It’s not clever; it’s not rhetorical; it’s illiterate. I know I once used a potato peeler as a screwdriver, but that’s what you have to do when a skilled craftsman won’t let an amateur loose on his tools of trade. The point is it made no difference to the screw, but if I’d wanted to hammer in a nail I’d have used — well, something heavy.
Some words have meanings, nuances and connotations that no other word can convey. They’re pure, like the white on an artist’s palette. Muddy the white with other colours and there goes the gleam and the twinkle. To pose the biblical hypothetical in St Matthew 5:13, if salt ever lost its savour, ‘wherewith shall it be salted?’ Language holds our history, poetry and wisdom; dictionaries record that language and its meaning. To dictionarians I say, ‘Create; do not adulterate.’ Linguists who delight in verbal anomalies to fill next year’s dictionary and their own silk purse will disagree with me, but I am an editor and words are my tools. I call a sow’s ear a sow’s ear.
What bugs me is the use of ‘literally’ when ‘figuratively’ is meant. I can literally see red, but only if I am actually looking at something red. If I’m seeing red as if I’m as angry as a bull about to charge at a bullfighter’s red cloak, that’s a figment of imagination – I’m figuratively seeing red. And I’m figuratively bending over backwards now to make this point: only a contortionist could truthfully claim to be literally bending over backwards. If we heard that claim from someone in a senior position and of a portly persuasion we would laugh, or if we were more tactful we’d let the faux pas pass. We wouldn’t stick it in the dictionary and say it’s okay for Australians to talk baloney.
In this month’s edition of the Editors Victoria newsletter, about to hit the e-waves, there is a report of an astonishing act of just such literary vandalism upon the English lexicon. It’s not the fact that verbal slip-ups happen that shocks me; it’s that our Australian dictionary— that arbiter of standard English for those who do not understand the bower-bird behaviour of a dictionary — appears to condone these errors, quoting as evidence an inadvertent mistake by a person in the public eye. That’s like advertising a potato peeler as a hammer because one or two people out there haven’t learnt the difference.
Yes, the Macquarie Dictionary had listed the word literally as an alternative for figuratively, albeit as the final definition. And with what justification? A single quoted misapplication of the word literally — an inadvertent solecism — by lawyer and former politician turned ABC presenter Amanda Vanstone:
In the ‘Strewth’ section of The Australian on 19 October 2012, columnist Christian Kerr reports that Macquarie added:
‘ . . .the emphatic use of literally is regarded by many as non-standard. However, this usage is gaining frequency as the intensifier is applied for rhetorical effect without any sense of the underlying meaning.’
‘Rhetorical effect’ indeed! Forget any appeal to pathos; this is bathos. The presenter of ABC radio’s Counterpoint — the right-wing reply to Phillip Adams — would be within her rights to throw the book at anyone lumping her in with those who wouldn’t know a rhetorical effect if it bit them on the bum. If she’s too backward in coming forward I can see the day when literary vandalism will be accepted as literally Vanstonism.
Fortunately, some who shared my concern for good English wrote well-edited letters to The Australian, a few of which may be applauded here:
I am pleased to observe that their opinions have hit the Macq. An expiatory note from the metalinguists at Macquarie has appeared on Facebook titled Literally screaming with excitement. The full text can be almost heard here:
I don’t indulge in Facebook so must be content with this announcement in a post on the Macquarie Dictionary website, artistically girt by gumleaves:
“We have long been aware of the use of ‘literally’ to give emphasis to what follows. The definition in the dictionary that covers this is: 3. (an intensifier) a. (applied to a literal meaning): literally screaming with excitement. b. (applied to a figurative meaning): *AMANDA VANSTONE: But I can assure you we are literally bending over backwards to take into account the concerns raised by colleagues –ABC ONLINE, 2006 “We tried to show the connection between the two uses, the first of which is acceptable while the second is not…”
Let me repeat: ‘While the second is not.’
Literally bending over backwards, in the Macquarie Dictionary — and especially in Parliament — is unacceptable. Apology accepted.
And you lot in the gumboots, you can put down your potato peelers.