Allow me to womansplain the problem with gendered language

Sophia Amoruso, who popularised the term girlboss, at the premiere of Netflix’s Girlboss TV show
Sophia Amoruso, who popularised the term girlboss, at the premiere of Netflix’s Girlboss TV show. 

She is a #Girlboss. She is a mumtrepreneur. She is a SheEO. He is a manterrupter. A mansplainer. A manspreader. He is always bropropriating women’s ideas. She is a feminazi. He’s got a dadbod and the man flu. What is it with the growing popularity of overtly gendered neologisms? From chick flicks to dick pics, from boss babes to guyliner, there has been a proliferation of his or hers portmanteaux.

Much of this is feminism’s fault, naturally. There has been more scrutiny of everyday sexism; words such as manspreading and manterrupting simply give a name to behaviour that was taken for granted before. There has also been more discussion of women in the workplace, leading to a rise in supposedly empowering labels such as girlboss, a term popularised by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of online retailer Nasty Gal. In 2014, Amoruso wrote a bestselling memoir/self-help book for entrepreneurially minded millennial women called #GIRLBOSS and the word entered the popular vernacular – it is now a Netflix show.

Neologisms such as girlboss and SheEO are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, of course. They are supposed to illuminate the fact that words such as boss and CEO are not actually gender-neutral, but implicitly coded as male, that language is “man made”, as the feminist Dale Spender put it, and reinforces a male world view. However, I can’t help feeling that, when it comes to girlboss, that subtlety has been lost. There are 5,491,625 pictures tagged with #girlboss on Instagram. It has become a cutesy girl-power phrase that is less empowering than it is patronising. It doesn’t tear down the sexism encoded in language, it reinforces it.

The same is true of the manifold vocabulary for manshaming. Words such as manspreading or mansplaining are – or at least they were – useful. If you don’t have a name for something, then it is harder to talk about and it is taken less seriously. But mansplaining and the various other man-words have become overused and diluted. They have gone from making an important point to simply being lazy ways to reinforce gender binaries. Men are like this; women are like that.

Language reflects and reinforces social norms; ungendering language is an important part of solving sexism. And there has been some progress. As you might expect, much of this emanates from Sweden. In the 1990s, there was consternation among Swedes that there was a colloquial, non-sexual word for penis (“snopp”) but no female equivalent; a discrepancy with ramifications on how children view and learn about their body. So Anna Kosztovics, a social worker from Malmö, coined “snippa” in 2000 and started promoting it. The government encouraged her efforts. Apparently, nursery school teachers were encouraged to put up notes on their doors asking: “Have you said snippa today?” Snippa entered the Swedish dictionary in 2006 and is now widely used.

Earlier this year, Kosztovics called for the UK to follow Sweden’s lead in a video on the BBC. British English has the word “willy” but lacks a widely used non-clinical, non-sexual way to talk about the vagina. Kosztovics says this means “little girls grow up with the thought that there is something wrong between their legs”. She adds: “There are 360 million people who speak English and I think it’s time for you to discover your own word … I say let the best word win.”

Hurricane names are another example of ungendering language. From 1953 to 1978, Atlantic hurricanes were given exclusively women’s names. In the 70s, feminists pushed to change this, but were met with resistance. A New York Times headline from 1972 declares: “Weather men insist storms are feminine.”According to some of these weathermen, female nomenclature was a matter of safety not sexism. Male-named storms wouldn’t be taken seriously, they argued, because they wouldn’t evoke female rage. Hell hath no fury like a female-named storm and all that. But the winds of change were not in the weathermen’s favour and Hurricane Bob hit Louisiana in 1979.

Perhaps the most success around fixing semantic sexism has been had by the increase of “they” being used as a singular pronoun. People have grappled with English’s lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun for centuries, often falling back on they. Chaucer and Shakespeare used they as a singular pronoun. Jane Austen uses they in this way 75 times in Pride and Prejudice. However, it is only recently that its use has become commonplace. They was named word of the year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society and, around the same time, the Washington Post style guide ratified the use of “they” as a singular.

We are more aware of the problems of gendered language than ever and, as the use of the singular they demonstrates, we are taking steps to fix it. At the same time, however, we seem to be creating a new gendering of language as the popularity of words such as mansplain and girlboss demonstrate. And that looks set to continue. On Friday, Girlboss, the show based on Amoruso’s life debuted, further reinforcing the word’s place in the vernacular. Girlboss may be one big step for one particular woman, but it is not a giant linguistic leap for womankind.

Do you pronounce ‘scone’ to rhyme with ‘cone’ or ‘gone’? It depends where you’re from

As linguists celebrate English Language Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, what does the ever-changing way we speak reveal about us?

A scone

Scone as in ‘gone’, or scone as in ‘cone’?

It is a division as entrenched and as bitter as the split between Brexit backers and EU Remainers – though in this case, the issue is truly personal. Do you pronounce the word “scone” to rhyme with “cone”, or to rhyme with “gone”?

To those in the latter group, it is a posh affectation to use a long vowel for this staple item of afternoon tea. By contrast, those in the former group believe they are merely following a logical extension of the pronunciation of the word cone by adding an s as a prefix.

The example of scone’s different pronunciations underscores the highly varied nature of Britain’s complex, shifting patterns of speech, and comes as the nation celebrates English Language Day and Shakespeare’s birthday on Sunday. It also marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary, which tracks how spoken English has varied in terms of geography and over time.

In fact, the way you pronounce scone says far less about your class and much more about your geographical origins – for, according to “The Great Scone Map”, produced by Cambridge University academics, its pronunciation follows a discernible pattern across Britain and Ireland. Those who rhyme it with gone predominate in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. Those who rhyme with cone dominate in southern Ireland and the Midlands. The rest of the country is a mixture of the two pronunciations.

And, just to complicate the matter, there is a third pronunciation available for the word – in the form of the village of Scone in Scotland, which is pronounced “skoon”.

“It is not a matter of being posh, or thinking you are posh, if you pronounce scone as in cone,” says phonetics expert Professor Jane Setter of the University of Reading, co-editor of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. “It is more a matter of where you grew up. By and large, the pronunciation that rhymes with gone is more common, however.”

“Our language continually reshapes itself,” she says. “New words appear. In addition, pronunciations of existing words alter. The word trap used to be pronounced more like ‘trep’, for example. Similarly pat was pronounced more like ‘pet’. Changes like these have been tracked in our dictionary for a century now – though very often when we detect changes, we really don’t understand why they have taken place.”

Consider the words poor and pour. “In the past they were pronounced differently and still are in some areas,” says Setter. “However, as time has passed, more and more people, myself included, have come to pronounce them in the same way – as in the word ‘pore’. In phonetics, it is called a merger, but we don’t always know why it has taken place in some areas of Britain and not in other parts of the country.”

Other entries in the dictionary have been pronunciations that have virtually disappeared from the modern world. The word calibre – as in the quality of a person’s character – is now pronounced as “KAL-ih-ber”. “Fifty years ago, you would have been far more likely to pronounce it as ‘ka-LEE-ber’,” said Setter.

Catherine Tate’s character Lauren
 ‘Am I Bovvered’? Catherine Tate’s character Lauren follows a trend in replacing ‘th’ sounds in words with ‘f’ or ‘v’ sounds. 

An even more striking illustration is provided in England by the word “arm”. In 1950 most people living to the south-west of a line drawn between London and Birmingham – as well as pockets in Lancashire and in Northumberland – pronounced the “r” in “arm”. The vast majority of those living outside these areas did not. Today virtually everyone in England now pronounces arm without the “r” – though people in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland still use it.

“This latter trend has become quite pronounced,” adds Setter. “A similar pattern has been noted with the word ‘square’ and also with ‘near’. Essentially, in England, we no longer pronounce these words with an ‘r’ in them either. We say something that is more like ‘squih’ and ‘nih’ today.”

The tendency to enunciate the letter “r” everywhere it appears in the spelling of a word is known as a rhotic accent and it is typified by people from Scotland and Ireland. However the use of the rhotic “r” was once more widespread in England, particularly in the south-west, but this has slowly disappeared.

Similarly the pronunciation of the letter “t” in words like metal is disappearing and is being replaced by glottal stops, in which a stop sound is made by rapidly closing the vocal cords. In this way, the word butter has ended up with a pronunciation like “bu’er”.

In a similar fashion, the pronunciation of “th” inside a word is disappearing and is being replaced by a “v” or “f” – to give us pronunciations like “muvver” or “bruvver” or even “bovvered” – the word so beloved of Catherine Tate’s schoolgirl character Lauren.

In fact, some experts believe that in 50 to 100 years the use of “th” in popularly spoken English will have disappeared. “The idea horrifies some English language teachers but at the end of the day we have to accept that words and their pronunciation are flexible and changeable,” says Setter.

“They are not fixed entities to be enshrined in stone.”

“One of the most profound influences is undoubtedly the London accent, which has a noticeable glottal stop,” she says . “It is the language of the capital, after all, so it is certainly going to affect the southern part of Britain. And you can trace the spread of the glottal stop and other features of the London accent moving westward along the M4 over time. Correspondingly, the rhotic “r” of the Berkshire accent has been lost over the years.”

And that is the crucial point, she adds. “Language changes – and for a variety of reasons. Incomers can affect it. Those who we perceive as being prestige figures or groups can affect it. There are plenty of reasons.

Setter concludes: “There is all sorts of discussion about how English might change over the years – and the truth is that we really don’t know exactly what is going to happen.”

What I have learned from five years of Everyday Sexism

To be a feminist is to be accused of oversensitivity and hysteria. But in the face of the abuse the project uncovered, the strength, ingenuity and humour of women has shone like a beacon

Laura Bates: ‘I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.’

Laura Bates: ‘I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.’

In spring 2012, a week after setting up a website to catalogue experiences of gender inequality, I asked Lady Gaga for her support via Twitter. Keen to raise awareness of my newly created Everyday Sexism Project, I hoped she might spread the word among her millions of followers.

The next morning, I sleepily reached for my phone and saw more than 200 new notifications. I clicked eagerly on the first message and stopped cold. It wasn’t, as I had hoped, the first of many new entries from women who had suffered harassment or assault. It was a brutally graphic rape threat – and the moment I became aware of the sheer force of hatred that greets women who speak out about sexism.

The threats continued to flood in. The sheer tenacity was startling. Who were these men, who could spend days, weeks – years, even – bombarding a woman they had never met with detailed descriptions of how they would torture her?

Over time, things became clearer. I met men who opposed feminism in different settings, and began to recognise their varied tactics. In some ways, the online abusers – who hurled hatred from behind a screen – were the least threatening. The repetition in their arguments (if you can call “get off your high horse and change your tampon” an argument) made it clear that their fury was regurgitated: rooted in a fear of that man-hating, society-destroying “feminazi” of online forum fantasy.

More sinister were the slick, intelligent naysayers who hid in plain sight. Men who scoffed at social events, confidently assuring those around us that sexism in the UK was a thing of the past and I should look to other countries to find “real problems”. Men who asked my husband, in commiserating tones, how he coped with being married to me. Politicians who told me I was “unnecessarily negative” and that girls these days didn’t know how lucky they were. The newspaper picture editor who overlooked the content of my interview when he announced his priority was to make me look “as sexy as possible”. People with the power to change things and the will to keep them exactly the same.

Despite this, the site was a success, and over the next five years, hundreds of thousands of testimonies flooded in. Almost every woman or girl I met told me their story, too. A nine-year old who had received a “dick pic”. An elderly lady who had been assaulted by her late husband’s best friend. A young black woman refused entry to a nightclub while her white girlfriends were waved through. A woman in a wheelchair who was told she would be lucky to be raped. My assumptions about the type of person who suffers particular forms of abuse and the separation between different kinds of prejudice quickly shattered.

The sadness of the stories was a heavy thing to bear, as was the continued abuse I received. A man who had offered me directions crossed the street in disgust when I told him I was on my way to give a talk about workplace sexual harassment, snapping: “For God’s sake, we’ve got to have some fun!” An interviewer asked me live on air whether it was difficult having no friends because I was so humourless. An American commentator wrote a blog publicly warning my husband he would one day come home to find I had burned down our house, murdered our children and joined a “coven of lesbian witches”. Somewhere around the time I received a death threat alongside the claim I was a dripping poison that should be eradicated from the world, I started seeing a counsellor. And – at low moments – I seriously considered the coven.

But there were pleasant surprises, too. I hadn’t anticipated the practical and emotional help offered by other women – solidarity from those of my own age and staunch support from older feminists who had seen it all before. And nothing could outweigh the privilege of being entrusted with so many people’s stories, often never told before. I felt a great sense of responsibility to make sure women’s voices were heard. I began to work with schools, universities, businesses, politicians and police forces, to try and ensure that the stories of one generation could alter things positively for the next. It helped hugely to feel that concrete change could come directly from the project.

Another joy was being part of a burgeoning wave of feminism, standing alongside others tackling everything from media sexism to female genital mutilation. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was how closely connected the different forms of inequality are. It is vital to resist those who mock and criticise us for tackling “minor” manifestations of prejudice, because these are the things that normalise and ingrain the treatment of women as second-class citizens, opening the door for everything else, from workplace discrimination to sexual violence.

To be a feminist, I have learned, is to be accused of oversensitivity, hysteria and crying wolf. But in the face of the abuse the project uncovered, the sheer strength, ingenuity and humour of women shone like a beacon. The dancer who performed for hours on the tube to reclaim the space where she was assaulted. The woman who waited five years to present her contract and a salt cellar to the careers adviser who had told her he would eat her paperwork if she ever became an engineer. The pedestrian who calmly removed the ladder of a catcalling builder, leaving him stranded on a roof.

That’s why I can honestly say that the experiences and lessons of the past five years have left me more hopeful than despairing. I can’t celebrate this milestone, exactly, representing as it does a collective outpouring of grief, anger and trauma. But I think of the resilience, the solidarity, the resistance, and I can’t mourn it either. In five years, I have learned that the problem is immense, but the will to fight it is greater still.

Write an opinion article about language change in which you assess the ideas and issues raised in Text A and Text B and argue your own views.

AO2: Demonstrate critical understanding of concepts and issues
relevant to language use
Level 5


·       demonstrate a synthesised, conceptualised and individual overview of issues

·       evaluate and challenge views, approaches, interpretations of linguistic issues

Level 4


·       identify and comment on different views, approaches and interpretations of linguistic issues
Level 3


·       show detailed knowledge of linguistic ideas, concepts and research
Level 2


·       show familiarity with linguistic ideas, concepts and research
AO5: Demonstrate expertise and creativity in the use of English to communicate in different ways
Level 5


• use form creatively and innovatively

• use register creatively for context

• write accurately

Level 4


• use form convincingly

• show close attention to register, effective for context

• show strong control of accuracy

Level 3


• use form competently

• use and sustain register, effective for context

• show firm control of accuracy

Level 2


• use form appropriately

• use appropriate language for context

· make occasional errors

The US has gotten this word back, and the UK probably will too

gottenAs every loyal British subject knows, American English is bad and wrong and stupid and a threat to our way of life. So I guess that makes me a traitor. I find it hard to worry about a few new imported words and phrases every year, especially as we exported our entire language across the Atlantic.

Yes, some of these newcomers grate – new words often do – and many of those ones don’t survive long. But others have become so well-established that most Brits don’t even realise they were made in America. Here are a few of the terms we’ve gained from the US: bandwagonbedrockblizzardbosscerealclose-upcomebackcocktailcrook (criminal), ditch (get rid of), electrocutefan (devotee), footweargobbledygookgraveyardjoyrideknow-howmaverickradio…*

The US has been a wonderful way of enriching British English, even if some of those riches seemed vulgar at first.

How gotten works

One noteworthy word is gotten: standard in the US but not in the UK.

In both countries, the past tense of get is got. In British English, the past participle is also got. But in American English, it’s more complex. Roughly: when talking about a static situation (possessing or needing) the past participle is got; when talking about a dynamic situation (acquiring or becoming) the past participle is gotten. So:

  • Yesterday I got a new guitar
  • I’ve got a great guitar
  • I’ve gotten a new guitar
  • You’ve got to see my new guitar
  • I got into playing the guitar last year
  • I’d gotten into playing the guitar the previous year

Any Brit who reads American books or watches American TV and films will have come across gotten. And, in fact, more people in Britain are coming to use it themselves – although it’s still often seen as an Americanism.

For a snapshot of recent usage, I looked at the Glowbe corpus of text from 1.8 million web pages in 2012. I compared different countries’ uses of has gottenhave gottenand had gotten with has gothave got and had got. The results don’t account for differences between static and dynamic situations, but they give us a rough relative picture.

On US websites, has/have/had gotten outnumbers has/have/had got by almost two to one. So that’s what a fully operational gotgotten distinction looks like. On Canadian sites, gotten is only slightly ahead of got, which suggests usage may be a bit more mixed. In Australia and Ireland, got is ahead by about three to one; gotten is common, but not fully accepted. And on British sites, has/have/had got outnumbers has/have/had gotten by seven to one.

(In a more formal context – Hansard’s record of proceedings in Parliament since 2010 – the ratio is about 1,500 to one.)

So, gotten is still far from mainstream in the UK, but it has built a firm presence. And, whether or not it catches on to become standard, it’s another example of British English using an Americanism.

Except that it isn’t.

This is how British English used to work – or rather, how English English used to work before Britain even existed.

The English decline of gotten

The huge list of example sentences in the OED suggests that gotten reigned supreme until the late 1500s, when got increasingly appeared in its place. Shakespeare and Hobbes used both. Got seems to have overtaken gotten around 1700.

Geoffrey Chaucer (Legend of Good Women, c1386): Ffor he woste wel she wolde nat ben geten

John Paston (letter, 1477): The Frenshe Kynge hathe gothen many off the townys off the Dukys off Borgoyne

Myles Coverdale (Bible translation, 1535): Treasures that are wickedlygotten, profit nothinge

William Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 2, c1591): Jack Cade hath gottenLondon Bridge

Shakespeare (Henry VI pt 3, c1591): The Army of the Queene hath got the field

Walter Raleigh (letter, 1618): I had gotten my libertye

Richard Whitlock (Zootomia, 1654): they should have got a whipping

John Evelyn (letter, 1690): I have now gotten me a pair of new horses

George Berkeley (Alciphron, 1732): Some old Ideas may be lost, and some new ones got

John Stepple (testimony at the Old Bailey, 1742): I would go and fetch a Constable, for he had got the Thief

Usage commentators eventually noticed the change, but too late to do anything about it. Robert Lowth’s popular Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) complained about “a very great Corruption, by which the Form of the Past Time is confounded with that of the Participle” – including the use of got instead of gotten. Lowth said: “This confusion prevails greatly in common discourse, and is too much authorised by the example of some of our best Writers.”

Maybe Lowth was thinking of Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary, seven years earlier, had uncritically listed both got and gotten as options for the past participle of get. Neither Johnson nor Lowth commented on the difference between static and dynamic situations.

And then in 1795, Lindley Murray’s blockbuster English Grammar declared that gotten was “obsolete”. That’s an overstatement, but by then it was uncommon, at least in standard usage. It partly survived in some nonstandard dialects (such as in Scotland and Ireland), as well as in the fossilised phrase ill-gotten gains. And there British English stayed for the best part of two centuries.

The American rebirth of gotten

In the US, got also dominated, but gotten survived on the fringes.

Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 said that gotten was “nearly obsolete in common parlance”. But it also said the same of forgotten and swollen. A generation later, Richard Meade Bache’s Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech (1869) said that gotten was still only “nearly obsolete”.

But Richard Grant White in Words and Their Uses (1870) saw the issue as a live dispute, and he picked a side: “I am asked, for instance, whether gotten… belongs to the list of ‘words that are not words.’ Certainly not.” Alfred Ayres in The Verbalist(1881) agreed: “If we say eatenwrittenstrivenforgotten, why not say gotten, where this form of the participle is more euphonious – as it often is – than got?”

The American revival of gotten seems to have started at the end of the 19th century.

Data from Google Books shows the end of gotten’s decline in British and AmericanEnglish (as with the Glowbe data, I’m looking at the ratio of has/have/had gotten to has/have/had got). And then – in the US – there’s the start of its recovery:



Some Americans continued to resist it, such as Dana Jensen (Modern Composition and Rhetoric, 1935), who said, with a whiff of wishful thinking, that “gotten… has been supplanted by got in formal usage”. The mention of formal usage suggests that the rearguard action had narrowed its focus to style, but still it was doomed.

In 1942, Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage accepted the return of gotten: it was “obsolete in Great Britain… but in the U.S.A., gotten (past participle) is preferred to got”.

And Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1965) agreed, noting the value of the gotgotten distinction. He quoted the linguist Albert Marckwardt: “In fact, most Americans regularly make a very precise distinction between got and gotten. ‘We’ve got ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that the funds in question are in our possession – we have them. ‘We have gotten ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that we have obtained or acquired this particular sum of money.”

In the late 20th century, gotten surged back into mainstream, standard usage in the US. And British usage has tentatively started to follow.



The future

I don’t think any British usage guide has yet endorsed gotten, and for the moment that seems fair – although the reason has changed. A century ago, the word would have seemed affectedly archaic (Henry Fowler’s judgement in 1926); today, the risk is that it comes across as affectedly American. How easily we forget our history.

Jeremy Butterfield’s 2015 edition of Fowler notes that gotten is on the increase in the UK. And I’ve been noticing it more and more in British conversation over the last few years – mostly from younger people. So I’d guess this shift is generational rather than because individuals are changing their usage. While it’s easy to pick up new words at any age, the grammar of a common verb like get may be a more fundamental thing to relearn. I’d expect gotten to keep growing – but slowly, and mostly in casual contexts.

And why shouldn’t we Brits use it? As Marckwardt and Bernstein said, and as millions of Americans have found, it’s useful. And it’s a part of our heritage that the US is helping us to recover. But I may be too set in my ways to start using it myself.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

In October, Green’s Dictionary of Slang became available as a free website, giving you access to an even more updated version of the dictionary. Collectively, the website lets you trace the development of slang over the past 500 years. And, as Mental Floss notes, the site “allows lookups of word definitions and etymologies for free, and, for a well-worth-it subscription fee, it offers citations and more extensive search options.” If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of words like kidlywinkgollier, and linthead, you now know where to begin.greens-dictionary-of-slang

“The three volumes of Green’s Dictionary of Slang demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. A remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language, it covers slang from the past five centuries right up to the present day, from all the different English-speaking countries and regions. Totaling 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries, the collection provides the definitions of 100,000 words and over 413,000 citations. Every word and phrase is authenticated by genuine and fully-referenced citations of its use, giving the work a level of authority and scholarship unmatched by any other publication in this field.”

Is “literally” literally broken?

…or has it merely changed meaning – something all language is an adverb of emphasis? Just as “jolly” once lost it’s specific meaning and just worked as an adverb of emphasis is sentences such as “I’m jolly mad.” or “I could jolly well eat a horse.” And have words such as “really” undergone the same kind of semantic shift?

“In English grammar, adverb of emphasis is a traditional term for an intensifier used to give added force or a greater degree of certainty to another word in a sentence or to the sentence as a whole. Also called an emphasizer and an emphasizing adverb.

Common adverbs of emphasis include absolutelycertainly, clearly, definitely, naturally, obviously, positively, really, simply, and undoubtedly.”


Have we literally broken the English language?


“Well, no, but the redefinition of ‘literally’ leaves it in a rather awkward state. Perhaps it’s a word best avoided for the moment

An open dictionary
The English language … slipping out of our control? 

Did we, as genuinely hundreds of people are tweeting, just break the English language? Or did we, as totally tens of bloggers are writing, prove that the English language is a beautiful, organic creature that is forever slipping out of our control? Well, no: to be precise, we have done something mildly annoying.

“Literally”, you see, in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can’t do anything right. So to use it at all is to encounter one of several pitfalls:

1. Mucking about with its meaning isn’t clever or inventive any more

“Literally” has been playfully abused since the time of Walter Scott. In Chronicles of the Canongate, for example, he writes: “The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried.” This was 1827, before the popularisation of the electric light: the house was figuratively electrified.

In 1837, a piece in The Mother’s Magazine by Abigail and Samuel Whittelsey contained the phrase, “They both literally slept in Jesus”, and in 1894 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, that Sherlock’s room “was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams” (we can probably also take this as figurative).

The point is that even if it was fun and surprising to force a “literally” where another word should go back in the 1800s, it’s getting a bit old now. But not quite old enough to change the word’s meaning completely and clean it of all the irritatingly playful associations.

Plus, since then the word has picked up way too much baggage to make it usefully nifty. “Literally” has been mainstream shorthand for “talking like a teenage girl” for a decade – you’re not going to get rid of that reference without violent verbal acrobatics. Literally, I’m afraid, is, like, totally eighteen-hundred and late.

2. To use it is to teeter on the edge of a conversational wormhole

You might be near a pedant, and they will say something like “Don’t you mean ‘figuratively?'” (no, no one says “figuratively” – it is pretentious) or go into “Yes, your foot is LITERALLY coming off. I LITERALLY believe you” paroxysms until smothered. These are the same people who use the word as a definitive intelligence measure – see the snobbery over Jamie Redknapp last year – which in my mind is as much of an error as using a specific piece of knowledge as a mark of cleverness (“X% of Americans don’t know where Armenia is! So stupid…”).

3. There isn’t much to be done

Given all of this, even when someone does use the word correctly, (“he’s literally the prime minister”), it is often such a surprise to the listener that the conversation halts anyway – prompting something like “er, yes. You’re right. He literally is” to emphasise just how much they have acknowledged your traditional use of language.

So there really is not much we can do with the word “literally”, other than avoid it completely. At the moment it is irredeemable. It is a moot word. We just have to leave it up in its bedroom for a while until it grows up a bit.”

Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?

Literally every modern dictionary includes this definition

“Is it ever okay to use literally to mean “figuratively”?

F. Scott Fitzgerald did it (“He literally glowed”). So did James Joyce (“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”), W. M. Thackeray (“I literally blazed with wit”), Charlotte Brontë (“she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits”) and others of their ilk.


“I literally blazed with wit.” William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch, 30 Oct. 1847. The figurative use of ‘literally’ may be annoying, but it is nothing new.

But the fact that Charles Dickens used literally in a figurative sense (“‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit”) doesn’t stop readers from complaining about our definition. We define literally in two senses:

1) in a literal sense or manner : actually
2) in effect : virtually

Some of our readers are not happy about this. Here are a few of the comments left at this entry:

Definition 2: the dictionary is literally wrong.

This is literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

I literally can’t even.

Some people choose not to leave such comments on our site (perhaps they do not wish to hurt our feelings), but still want to make their displeasure clear. These people comment on other forums, as in this sample taken from a recent comment thread on

Considering that Merriam-Webster has redefined “literally” to mean “figuratively,” I’m going with literally.

Our poor language, I’m figuratively about to hurl.

Agreed! How you you [sic] agree to accept (I’m looking at you craven dictionary editors!) a word that means the exact opposite? It’s unfathomably stupid.

Never trust anything but the OED…

It’s fine to trust the OED, but you might want to check their definition first:

literally, adv. 1c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: “virtually, as good as”; (also) “completely, utterly, absolutely.”
Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Sept. 2011

Aaargh! That doesn’t seem very literal at all! The dark forces of “figurative-literalism” must have gotten to them, perhaps by blackmailing the editors. Let’s look at how some other current dictionaries define this word.

literally, adv. … 3.b. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, 2016

literally, adverb … 2. (intensifier) ⇒ there were literally thousands of people
Collins English Dictionary

Literally every modern dictionary includes a definition for the metaphoric or intensifying sense of the word literally. Why do we hate the English language so?

We don’t.

There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language’s morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time. All of the dictionaries listed above also provide usage notes with the definition of literally, indicating that this sense is widely frowned upon. We include a note as well, which reads as follows:

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.

If this sense of literally is bothersome, you needn’t use it. If you dislike hearing other people use it, you may continue to be upset. If you would like to broaden your complaint slightly, and insist that the original meaning of literal is the only proper one, go right ahead (although, before committing to this, you should be aware that this will restrict you to using literal when you mean “of, relating to, or expressed in letters”).

The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769. Its inclusion in a dictionary isn’t new either; the entry for literally in our 1909 unabridged dictionary states that the word is “often used hyperbolically; as, he literally flew.” We (and all the other “craven dictionary editors”) have included this definition for a very simple reason: a lot of people use it this way, and our entries are based on evidence of use. Furthermore, the fact that so many people are writing angry letters serves as a sort of secondhand evidence, as they would hardly be complaining about this usage if it had not become common.

We understand that many have chosen this particular issue as the one about which they choose to draw a line in the sand, on the grounds that a word should not mean one thing and its opposite (a fairly common thing in English). But a living language is a language that is always changing; this change may be lovely, and it may be ugly. As lexicographers we are in the business of defining language, rather than judging it.”

Hate-watch, 420, and pogonophobia: an OED update

pogonophobiaThis quarter, more than 500 new words, phrases, and senses have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In keeping with the OED’s broad scope, the list of new entries include such disparate items as hate-watch, a 21st-century verb meaning ‘to watch (a television programme, etc.) in a spirit of mockery, as a form of entertainment’; pogonophobia, a jocular term for a strong dislike of beards that was coined in 1857 but may be more relevant than ever given the current proliferation of barbigerous hipsters; and heliopause, the astronomical term for the very outer edge of the solar system beyond which the solar wind is undetectable, a boundary traversed by the touch of humanity for the first time in 2012, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed it to enter interstellar space. A small sample of the new additions is discussed below.

sticky-outy, adjective

The charmingly colloquial adjective sticky-outy means ‘that protrudes or sticks out’, elaborating upon the form of the synonymous earlier word sticky-out by adding an additional –y. The OED’s first citation comes from a letter written by the Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger to his mother in 1921, lamenting ‘My hair has taken a wild fit, all sticky-outy in ends.’ Indeed, Grainger’s hair was notable for its sticky-outiness, as photographs of him from this period attest.

screecham, noun

In Scotland, especially the Shetland Islands, screecham is an evocative slang term for whisky. Regionalisms, being associated with oral usage, tend to be recorded in a wide variety of spellings, and the earliest evidence of screecham is in the form ‘screighin’, which supports an interpretation of its etymology as deriving from skreigh n. 3 (another Scottish slang word for whisky) plus the suffix -ing(which forms nouns like wedding or clothing), with the ending becoming obscured in later use. Skreigh is also a Scottish word for ‘shriek or screech’, and is thought to have taken on its association with whisky with allusion to the roughness of the liquor, thought likely to elicit a shriek from the person who drinks it.

freak flag, noun

Simple two-word combinations in English are often overlooked by comparison with more inventive neologisms, but compounding is a prolific source of new words, and the OED records their earliest uses just as it does those of any lexical item. The new entry for freak flag, which is used in phrases like ‘let your freak flag fly’ to refer to unconventional traits which are exhibited proudly or defiantly, is first recorded  in a song lyric by Jimi Hendrix, which the OED cites from the sleeve of the original 1967 LP archived in the Library of Congress.

hat tip, noun

The phrase hat tip was included in the first edition of the OED as a now-forgotten term in hat-making jargon: it referred to an oval or circular piece of material used to line the crown of a hat. A new meaning of the phrase derived from the verb tip has now been added, denoting the action of tipping or doffing one’s hat in greeting or acknowledgement and hence, figuratively, an expression of gratitude or admiration. The latter sense is nowadays associated especially with Twitter and other social media sites, where hat tip (often abbreviated HT or h/t) is used to acknowledge assistance or inspiration. However, this usage dates back long before the days of social media: the first recorded example of the figurative use is from 1935, and it was popularized in the 1940s by the American cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo, who used it to acknowledge readers who had contributed ideas which inspired his cartoons.

skitch, verb

In contemporary use, the verb skitch most often refers to holding on to the back of a moving vehicle so as to be pulled along while riding on a wheeled device like a skateboard or bicycle, making its origin as a blend of ski or skate and hitch somewhat mysterious. However, it was originally used to refer to hitching a ride in this way while sliding on snow or ice, an action more obviously reminiscent of skiing and skating. Skitch is first recorded in Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March, but was likely in oral use before then.

420, noun

Another new Americanism in this update is 420, used in American slang to refer to marijuana, or the action of smoking marijuana. The term seems to have originated among a small group of friends in California in the early 1970s, originally with reference to 4:20 p.m., the time at which they repeatedly met to try to locate an unattended plot of cannabis plants. Members of this group, who called themselves the Waldos, assisted our researchers by supplying documentation of early use of the term, including the OED’s first citation, from a 1974 article in a San Rafael High School newspaper.

things aren’t what they used to be

English-speakers have been lamenting that things aren’t what they used to be, expressing the idea that circumstances or standards have deteriorated over time, since at least 1847, but the phrase enters the OED for the first time today. The entry’s quotation evidence reveals the term’s contradictory connotations. In literature, this statement of nostalgia for a better time in one’s youth is often put in the mouth of an old-timer depicted as speaking regional or colloquial varieties of English, so the quotation paragraph for OED’s entry includes nonstandard versions of the phrase, such as ‘things ain’t now as they used to was’ and ‘fings ain’t wot they used T’be,’ as well as formal versions like ‘things weren’t what they had once been’. However it was uttered, by 1926 the wistful expression of attachment to bygone days had become such a well-established trope that it began to be used to critique nostalgia rather than express it: ‘Things aren’t what they were!.. They never were!’

To find out more, and for the complete list of new entries, click here.

Noam Chomsky Talks About How Kids Acquire Language & Ideas in an Animated Video by Michel Gondry

These days Noam Chomsky is probably most famous for his consistent, outspoken criticism of U.S. foreign policy. Yet before the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, Chomsky became internationally famous for proposing a novel solution to an age-old question: what does a baby know?

Plato argued that infants retain memories of past lives and thus come into this world with a grasp of language. John Locke countered that a baby’s mind is a blank slate onto which the world etches its impression. After years of research, Chomsky proposed that newborns have a hard-wired ability to understand grammar. Language acquisition is as elemental to being human as, say, dam building is to a beaver. It’s just what we’re programmed to do. Chomsky’s theories revolutionized the way we understand linguistics and the mind.

A little while ago, film director and music video auteur Michel Gondry interviewed Chomsky and then turned the whole thing into an extended animated documentary called Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (which is currently available on Netflix’s streaming service).

Above is a clip from the film. In his thick French accent, Gondry asks if there is a correlation between language acquisition and early memories. For anyone who’s watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you know that memory is one of the director’s major obsessions. Over Gondry’s rough-hewn drawings, Chomsky expounds: “Children know quite a lot of a language, much more than you would expect, before they can exhibit that knowledge.” He goes on to talk about new techniques for teaching deaf-blind children and how a day-old infant interprets the world.

As the father of a toddler who is at the cusp of learning to form thoughts in words, I found the clip to be fascinating. Now, if only Chomsky can explain why my son has taken to shouting the word “bacon” over and over and over again.

To gain a deeper understanding of Chomsky’s thoughts on linguistics, see our previous post:  The Ideas of Noam Chomsky: An Introduction to His Theories on Language & Knowledge (1977)