Blatherskite and Shakespearean peeving

July 13, 2016

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, both in a historical vein. First up, Blethering about blatherskite explores a colourful term for nonsense (or for someone talking nonsense):

Blatherskite is a compound in two parts. It was formed by joining blather – a noun and verb referring to long-winded, empty talk – with skite, a Scottish insult with ancestry in an Old Norse word for excrement (skite is related to shit).

Macmillan Dictionary labels blatherskite as American and informal. There’s no surprise about the second label: the word doesn’t appear often in print, occurring more in vernacular use. But since blatherskite originates in Scots, it’s curious that it should have become a chiefly American word.

The post goes on to explain how it crossed the Atlantic and discusses its phonetic suitability.


As You Dislike It considers the word very as an intensifier – a usage that prompted some protest when it first began to spread:

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change . . .

If you’re thinking of the parallel with literally – in both semantic development and conservative backlash – you wouldn’t be alone. I look at these and other aspects in the rest of the post.

Older articles can be read at my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

Read the rest of this entry »

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)

Read the rest of this entry »