word play

Words Mean Things until They Don’t

The Not Concise Edition
The Inconcise Edition

“Literally” now has an additional definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: informally, it can be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true” such as, “We were literally killing ourselves laughing.”

So basically, “literally” can be used to mean both “literally” and “not literally at all.”

Fun, confusing, but not unprecedented.

Cleave can mean both “split” and “adhere.”

Ginormous is also a word. I had to throw that in because I like it.

I used to be one of those people who had a fit if a word were used incorrectly, but now I find it much more interesting to listen to how people actually use words. A dictionary is supposed to reflect the language as used by the people who speak it (in my opinion). It’s not supposed to be a tool for imperious snobs to control the way other people speak and communicate. But it is supposed to help clarify.

The problem is that words mean different things to different people. There are some universal connotations. “Propaganda” has a negative feeling for most people. But there are also personal connotations, and some seemingly innocuous words can dredge up unintended feelings from readers or hearers, things the speaker or writer never intended.

I don’t have a real answer to this conundrum, but sometimes I wonder how we ever communicate effectively at all.

One thought on “Words Mean Things until They Don’t

  1. Two of my favorite unlikely synonyms are “flammable” and “inflammable.”

    Oh, and throw in the differences of regional dialects and word usage, and your comment is even more head-scratching: How DO we manage to communicate effectively at all?

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