Mind your language

After ‘literally’, is it time to start a Neighbourhood Watch for the OED?

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

There was outrage last week when it was found that the Oxford English Dictionary had listed one sense of literally as ‘virtually, as good as’ — in other words, the reverse of its established meaning. Pedants were literally up in arms (in the new sense). The funniest thing was that the offending entry in the OED had been inserted in 2011, and the pedants hadn’t noticed for a couple of years.

So I thought I ought to see what else the dictionary-makers had been doing on the quiet. I started with hopefully. This word is much deplored when used to mean ‘it is to be hoped’. In that sense, it applies to the whole sentence, and is thus known as a sentence-adverb. The OED hasn’t changed its entry for the word since 1989, when it commented on the disapproved sense: ‘Originally US. (Avoided by many writers.)’

In America, the Associated Press Stylebook changed its ruling last year. Many newspapers and magazines in America follow its dictates. But there should never have been any fuss in the first place, according to the American dictionary firm Merriam-Webster. (This company, founded in 1831 by George and Charles Merriam, publishes what people still think of as Webster’s Dictionary. As Bing Crosby and Bob Hope sang: ‘Like Webster’s Dictionary we’re Morocco bound.’) Merriam-Webster says that the reprobated sense of hopefully dates from the 18th century (though the OED cites no example earlier than 1932). In the 1960s, it says, the newer sense ‘underwent a surge in popularity. A surge of criticism followed in reaction, but the criticism took no account of the grammar of adverbs.’ Merriam-Webster calls adverbs like the new hopefully ‘disjuncts’, the equivalent of sentence-adverbs.

There are plenty of these, and one other, thankfully, is also singled out for deprecation. Others have been with us for ages: luckily since 1717 (in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu), historically 1753, oddly 1776, mercifully 1836, plainly 1863, with clearly, actually, regrettably, personally, significantly and ideally all emerging in the 19th century, according to the OED.

Since dictionaries are updated on their online editions, some other much cultivated shibboleth could be abolished at any hour. Perhaps watch-committees could set a guard on particularly treasured: begging the question, perhaps, or forensic.

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