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A Word, Please: We literally can't stop changes in usage

December 31, 2013|By June Casagrande

Recently, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum wrote about the word "literally." It's not OK, she argued, that the Oxford English Dictionary expanded the definition of "literally" to include "informal, used for emphasis while not being literally true."

"If we cave on 'literally,'" Daum wrote, "it will only be a matter of time before we'll be granting equal rights to 'irregardless.'"

I like Daum. She's a brilliant writer with a gift for finding fascinating new perspectives on every topic she touches. But on this matter, she's just wrong.

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To illustrate why, let me spin a tale.

Once upon a time, a hairy club-wielding person we'll call Grug saw a hole in the side of a mountain. He went inside and noticed that water was no longer falling on his head. He hurried to tell some other hairy people about it. "Come see the, the ..." Grug didn't have a word for his discovery, so he finished his sentence with "crob," which derived from a term that, roughly translated, meant "Now kids, I don't want you painting on the walls in here."

Soon, others were setting out to find their own crobs. But by then, they were using the word "crob-a-licious," a term coined by the pimpliest hairy people whose own offspring would go on to call them "cray-ibs," eerily foreshadowing a popular MTV series. Still other hairy types began using "crob" to describe the hole you get in your tooth if you live past age 25.

Hairy people continued to spread far and wide, botching Grug's coinage with each new generation. Over time, a crob was called everything from a koilos to a specus to, eventually, a cave.

Grug, a notorious curmudgeon, would have flipped in the stomach of the saber-toothed tiger that ate him had he known people would one day refer to him as a "cave man." "I'm a crob-man! A crob-man!" he would have shrieked. "Our language is going to Haruga in a hagblarsket!"

But things got worse. By the year 1700, ignoramuses had begun to completely disregard the fact that "cave" was a noun. They began using it as (gasp!) a verb. This surely brought out the Grug in a lot of people, who prophesied that the language was going to Hades in some kind of urn.

Just how catastrophic was this slide? Did this incessant erosion of Grug's once perfect noun drag us down into some linguistic ghetto in which we're all reduced to grunts and screeches?

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