Literally speaking

There has fallen into my lap today a volume from that august organ, the Daily Telegraph. It is a small book, written by two of their journalists, and concerns the matter of infuriating language use. Taking the form of a phrasebook, it lists some of these “spoken insults to the intelligence,” setting us right on their usage, and in passing declaring to be “idiots,” “tin-eared,” or even simply “insecure” those who use them. The authors, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, have decided to set us right, and are doing so in stridently indignant terms. The book is called She Literally Exploded, a title which indicates both a paradigm objection of theirs, and the fact that the book is expected to drive those of us who are right and proper in our use of language to paroxysms of rage at these foolish abuses.

Would you be surprised to learn that, though the book does indeed have me quivering with fury, the source of my ire is far less the expressions collected within, than the bigotry, sneering arrogance, and sheer laziness of the authors? One may make stylistic judgements, and defend them—preferably with reasoning based upon clarity of expression or similar criteria. This in itself is fine; I have been verbose on this very blog about my objection to redundant and obscurantist use of Latin. But this book is nothing more than a collection of largely modern terms, which the aggressively conservative authors consider to be self-evidently awful, saving them from having to explain their reasons in the majority of cases. In those where they deign to offer us some justification, it is spectacular in its ill-informed presumptiveness.

I’d like to treat you to a few selected citations, if I may. We might as well start with the headline term. Here, according to Messrs Howse and Preston, is the objection to this linguistic affront:

Literally Distinguishes the literal from the figurative meanings of a phrase, but is now used at random as an intensifier or a synonym for really, by those with tin ears.

Our erudite and authoritative authors, it would appear, do not approve of the use of literally as an intensifier. Literally, literally, means literally. The word’s meaning, one presumes, is not permitted to change, and however much it is used and understood by virtually the entire speakership of English in a different, complementary sense, this is apparently unacceptable. The authors require us to be ineluctably tied to the etymological origin of the word.

Following this principle, they will, of course, be delighted rather than insulted when I suggest that they are pair of dunces. Being vastly superior, as the tone of the entire book indicates, they will no doubt be aware that this was originally a term which, referring as it did to the thirteenth-century philosopher Duns Scotus, indicated nothing but admiration for the intelligence of its attributee. This gentleman was from Ireland, a fact which will be wholly apparent to them, for this is the original Latinate reference of Scot, and I can only presume it is an oversight on their part they have not included a similar entry decrying our modern and foolish reference to the peoples of that other great land.

Their use of the word “now” indicates to me that they consider this a modern phenomenon, so perhaps it is the case that modern innovations are to be decried but established ones accepted. (I use the phrase “modern innovation” advisedly, because they are firm in their rejection of new innovation as a pleonasm.) As it is unthinkable that these authoritative and expert language users were so lazy in their research as to not check up and discover that, for instance, no less a stylist than William Makepeace Thackeray[1] used literally unliterally as long ago as 1847,[2] we must presume that the cut-off date lies before that. It is regrettable that the date for permissible linguistic innovation is so early, for I cannot now say that I find nothing to chortle (Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871) at in this book; that their condescending attitude towards harmless vernacularisms gives me the creeps (Dickens, David Copperfield, 1850); or that I can’t see any merit in this book to save my life (Trollope, The Kellys and the O’Kellys, 1848).

Given this commitment to literally literal accuracy in the use of words, some of the other entries seem simply bizarre. They object to pan-fried, presumably on the grounds of informational redundancy as the entry reads “Instead of being fried in an old dustbin-lid.”[3] One can only assume that they have never heard of deep fat friers. Similar inaccurate accusations of pleonasticity crop up frequently. New-laid eggs is apparently a pleonasm, but I rather like to know that my omelette is not being made with ones laid a month ago. Line-caught is out too; do we not use fishing nets any more? First invented by is unacceptable, because “the second inventor is deservedly less well-known.” This extensive list of examples of Steigler’s Law, not to mention the small matter of a dispute between Newton and Leibniz concerning the infinitesimal calculus, would seem to call this into question.

Other entries provide a fascinating insight into the mindset of Telegraph journalists. Diversity is sneeringly and loadedly written off as “an obligatory agenda that penalises those who do not seek multiculturalism,“ and inappropriate is “used by officials who want to blame people for behaviour that is not illegal or forbidden.”[4] This latter definition seems perfectly reasonable to me; I was left wondering why it should be considered so irritating until I realised that whilst most of us have a general idea of a substantial moral grey zone—behaviours that whilst undesirable do not necessarily mandate illegality such as, for instance, the writing of nasty, lazily researched, and presumptive books—in the world of the Telegraph everything that is not utterly blameless should be outlawed. The use of their as a gender-neutral singular possessive is prohibited by Messrs Howse and Preston, for it breaks the sacred rules of agreement; presumably a matter of higher import to them than addressing the entrenched gender attitudes in our language—except even this claim is problematic, for they assert that the word gender applies solely to grammar, contrasting it with the fact that the biological term is sex. No room in the world of the Daily Telegraph for this modern nonsense about personal identity, it seems.

On occasion their need to lay claim to classical erudition in order that we be awed into accepting their judgment lands them in a bit of a pickle. Having said that is considered guilty because it is “a version of aporia,” a device which they lower themselves to glossing for us as “a rhetorically useful expression of doubt that may be feigned.” Surely this is an admission that the phrase in question has worth? Aporia is not to be avoided; quite the contrary: it is part of the arsenal with which the rhetorician indicates their assessment of a given viewpoint. Hence the word “useful” in that definition; a definition about whose provenance I aporically wonder, given its remarkable similarity to that of Wikipedia. Yet their rhetorical expertise apparently fails them when they scoff at talk of a train terminating: they wittily point out the service terminates but the train does not. What an opportunity to crib Wikipedia’s definition for metonymy they have missed here—or, if they object so strongly to this particular rhetorical device, I hope they regularly scold their colleagues in the same insulting terms that they use in this book for such affronts as this.

Look, I’m an editor. If you asked me to edit something you’d written then it is quite likely that I would strike out a number of phrases that are included in this book: but the grounds would be appropriateness and register, not intrinsic merit. She Literally Exploded denigrates the vernacular for being the vernacular; the writers sneer at and mock harmless idiosyncracies of modern speech, as well as imposing some altogether antiquarian notions of communication. They demand that speakers adhere to out-dated, arbitrary, and formalistic rules, whilst managing the odd epic fail of their own. (What’s that stranded preposition doing in the entry for Escherichia coli,[7] guys?) It’s a nasty, small-minded book for people who seek to use linguistic formalism to assert intellectual superiority.

What’s your take on . . . Invitation to dress up an unresearched opinion as fact.

Indeed. This entire book, I rather feel, is Howse and Preston’s response to the question “What’s your take on language use?” in precisely the terms they set out.


[1] Author of one of the 20 best British novels in a list by none other than the Daily Telegraph; a list which includes novels by James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, John Banville, and Henry James; strangely our book does not include an entry on the wildly inaccurate use of British by imperialist and appropriative journalists.

[2] The relevant passage is in Punch (30 October 1847) and reads “… yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit.” I found this by the arduous and time-consuming method of looking up literally in Merriam-Webster.

[3] Sticklers for prescriptive grammar that they are, I hope that they can justify that hyphen in “dustbin-lid,” because to me the lid is the modified element, not the modifier, and attributive hyphenation is used within the predicate, not between the predicate and subject.

[4] “Is not illegal or forbidden,” hey? No highly-trained Telegraph journalist I; but I might suggest that “neither illegal nor forbidden” would avoid the ambiguity in the scope of the negative in their wording, though it would still leave open the largely tautological nature of the expression—is there anything that is illegal that is not also forbidden? Given the recurrent objections to purported pleonasms above, and the fact that Aims and objectives is also cited as an affront for its tautology, a less charitable man than me might wonder whether they are guilty of exactly the kind of writing that they seek to denigrate.[5]

[5] Oh wait, I’m so not a charitable man,[6] and it is all the easier to denigrate them since they have not baulked at throwing around insults themselves. So let’s add ”careless hypocrisy” to my list of affronts that they have committed.

[6] That intensifier so was just for you, chaps. I hope you enjoyed it.

[7] Yes, they insist that one should not use E. coli until one has first glossed it, otherwise the reader would not know “the bacterium which you are referring to” [sic]. Personally, not being a microbiologist, I know that when someone says E. coli they are referring to a species of bacteria[8] that gives food poisoning. I and the majority of the population—including, I suspect, Chris and Rich—have no knowledge of the other members of the genus, or of other bacteria of other genera with a species term of coli, and do not know or ever use the full name. If it were to be used in a non-specialist text then this would not aid understanding but risk obscuring it. It is worth noting that several times they use BBC without feeling the need to gloss it to British Broadcasting Corporation, so they don’t seem to feel that all abbreviations should be glossed as a matter of course. Perhaps this is just more intellectual one-upmanship, a hint to the reader to believe that they are scientifically literate?

[8] Type/token distinction, guys. This is basic stuff.

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