Real estate lingo, and the sorriest apologies

May 28, 2012

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, excerpted below.

The unreality of real estate language was prompted by the amusing hyperbole of property ads, where ordinary lawns are “magnificent”, rooms are “filled with natural light”, and dreams lie forever on your doorstep. It is a world where

medium is ‘large’, average is ‘first rate’, and unusual is ‘extraordinary’. Any site that isn’t a ruined shack sinking into a swamp may be described as ‘superb’. A well-maintained building is ‘stunning’ and ‘fabulous’, a better-than-average view ‘must be seen to be believed’, and everywhere but the most dilapidated neighbourhoods are in a ‘most sought after location’. (Hyphens, unlike typos, are often scarce in these ads.)

The comments offer such phrases as “deceptively spacious” and “compact and bijou” as further examples of this less-than-reliable repackaging of reality. You can read the rest here.

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Apologies are being expressed – or are they? examines the possible differences between saying “I’m sorry” and “Apologies” (and variations thereon):

Authentic remorse tends to be effectively communicated so long as sincere effort is made through tone, gesture, penitent behaviour and so on. But the words, as an explicit admission of wrongdoing or shortcoming, can be an important part of reconciliation. . . .

Because it omits the subject, ‘Apologies’ is somewhat disembodied and abstract, a bit like saying ‘Mistakes were made’ instead of ‘I/We made a mistake.’ It can be personalised, for example as ‘My (sincere) apologies’, but this feels formal – at least to me – whereas ‘I’m sorry’ does not. Omission of the subject is why the passive voice is not best suited to apologising . . .

It’s a very subjective area, of course, and “I’m sorry” can be as sarcastic as “Apologies” can be sincere – which is partly why it’s so interesting. The comments from other people helped to develop the discussion beyond my hunches and experiences. I didn’t use corpus data in arriving at my cautious conclusions – for which, my apologies.


Starved with the cold, and linguistic inflation

April 30, 2012

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. The first, Starved with the cold, looks at how this expression (which has currency in Ireland) illustrates the phenomenon of semantic narrowing. This is where a word’s meaning narrows to a more specific domain:

Starve is descended from the Old English word steorfan, meaning die – without implicit reference to the means of death . . . . The story of starve illustrates a common semantic process – known as narrowing, restriction, or specialisation – whereby a word’s field of reference contracts. For example, accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something that happens by chance, then something unfortunate that happens by chance: happening to happenstance to mishap. (Sometimes the different senses exist in parallel.) In the 20th century, accident gained a still narrower meaning: a child whose conception was not planned.

Other words that have undergone narrowing include undertaker, deer, girl, affection, engine, science, and meat, all of which appear in the post.

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Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? seems to have struck a chord, maybe because the practice is, well, unbelievably popular at the moment. Here’s an excerpt:

Inflation lies behind the popular use of such words as genius, epic, awesome, totally, and incredible. What they mean is often more modest than their traditional senses suggest: genius means clever, epic is impressive, incredible is surprising. Such is our need to imbue our words with force and significance, that we use hyperbole to entice people to pay attention . . . . Numbers offer a convenient way to observe the scale of this phenomenon. Take the phrase “give 110%”, which is common in sporting and business contexts. Once it became a cliché, people started feeling they had to give 200% or 1000% or even 10,000% . . .

Anthony Burgess thought inflation was a debasement of language, but I think his fears were a bit exaggerated. You can read the rest of the post to find out why, and to see some incredibly epic examples of linguistic inflation.

My older posts are in the Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.


Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’

January 31, 2011

He literally glowed (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. Let’s see where we stand with the dictionaries. The Shorter OED defines literally as follows:

In a literal manner, in the literal sense; so as to represent the very words of the original; so as to depict or describe the thing realistically; (emphasizing the use of a word or phrase) without metaphor, exaggeration, distortion, or allusion, colloq. With some exaggeration etc., emphatically.

Note the inclusion of a colloquial definition, the brevity of which belies the popularity of this usage. Merriam-Webster includes a helpful usage note with its two-pronged definition:

1: in a literal sense or manner: actually [took the remark literally] [was literally insane]
2: in effect: virtually [will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins]

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

The casual uses of the word to emphasise figurative or hyperbolic statements (“I literally exploded/died!”) are widely reviled, but they’ve been around for centuries and can be seen in the texts of many great writers. I’ve scattered examples throughout this post, some of them courtesy of MWDEU, as a counterpoint to the ridicule – and rage – that often accompanies the non-literal use of the word.

And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading)

At this time of day, the Gravediggers [pub] is literally the capital of Hell, the city of Satan and his acolytes, the city built by fallen angels. (Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque, tr. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)

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