Is it literally too late to stop the drift?
BEN YAGODA has a slightly silly but thought-provoking essay at Slate in which he proposes a two-part scale for determining which words (and phrases) we should try to stop from changing their meanings fundamentally. The usual suspects are familiar: nonplussed, presently, decimate, beg the question, fulsome and disinterested are now all used to mean something quite different from what they once meant. Mr Yagoda accepts that language changes, but some shifts may do more damage than others, and so proposes a two-part test for which changes to arrest: 1) how far along is the change?, and 2) how irreplaceable is the word undergoing the shift? If his math is a little unserious (he just multiplies his two factors), and his data a little dodgy (he simply uses the first 20 Google-search results for his usage corpus), the two questions are pretty good ones.
But “data” is more likely to be singular on the internet as a whole: “the data is” returns 260m pages as a Google Search, “the data are” just 78m. So the vox populi is slowly completing the shift, but we still have an open case in which most careful writers will want to stick with plural data.
What about Mr Yagoda’s second question, the “utility rating” of the sense of the word being lost? This obviously doesn’t lend itself to easy math. Mr Yagoda gives a 0 to 3 score: “the lion’s share” is a cliché he doesn’t mind losing, and so gets a 0. “Disinterested” is very interesting to him, so he gives it the maximum 3. I use “disinterested” the way he does, but I don’t think it’s irreplaceable: “impartial” means nearly the same thing, only with a different etymology (“of no party” rather than “not having a stake”). He wants to keep “to beg the question” to mean “to assume the conclusion”. I do too, but unfortunately his Google data show what we all know. Nearly nobody uses it that way any more.
I’m surprised one popular peeve item didn’t make his list: “literally”. If the storehouse of traditional vocabulary were fire and I could only save a few items, it’d be one of the ones I’d grab on my way out of the building. “Literally” literally has no neat replacement that I know of; if I try to imagine myself replacing it in a sentence, I only imagine myself saying it louder and more insistently.
Me: It was literally miles away.
Interlocutor: [unimpressed] Hm, really?
Me: No, I mean it was literally miles away. We walked forever. Not literally forever, mind you…
When used properly (as in my attempted joke here), “literally” can pack an irreplaceable punch. And while I can’t think of how to tabulate it exactly, my sense is that plenty of people still use “literally” to mean “not figuratively”, as I do. The fight isn’t over yet on literally, as I suspect it is for “beg the question”. So I’m for saving the ones we can. I might literally fight this one to my dying day.
The first question can, in theory, be answered with a little finer tools than Mr Yagoda’s. For example the Google N-Gram Viewer shows that “data” is still used as a plural in most books (works carefully and slowly written and edited). The red line below is the frequency of “the data are”, and the blue is the frequency of “the data is.”
Apr 7th 2011, 20:06 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK