Yesterday’s Guardian featured some worn out words: ‘expressions that have become such clichés that they have lost all meaning’. Aphorist James Geary nominated literally:
Why? One of the great testaments to the power of metaphor, and the malleability of language, is the metaphorical use of the word “literally”…. It’s a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe.
Geary points out, with the kind of detail that lends fascination to the humblest word, that literal
is derived from the Latin verb linire, meaning “to smear”, and was transferred to litera (letter) when authors began smearing words on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. Thus, the literal meaning of “literal” is to smear or spread, a fitting metaphor for the way metaphor oozes over rigid linguistic borders.’
Literally was perhaps not so fitting for an item in Glossop Life, ‘a lifestyle magazine for Glossop and the High Peak’ that also dropped through my letterbox yesterday:
Based at the top end of the High Street, her shop is very visible and has literally taken off.’
Sonia’s shop is called Frock – but I’m not sure Glossop is quite ready for a frock to be literally taken off on the High Street. What will chaps and chapesses think?
Chaps? The word has surfaced in two interesting contexts this week. In the Telegraph John Newton (no, not the reformed slave-trader who’s been featured in Word of the Day this week, but the Headmaster of Taunton School) told Michael Gove that he should axe A-level modular exams. Presumably once he’s sorted the teachers’ pensions out – and incidentally, what about MPs sorting out their own rather generous pension arrangements first? Dr Newton praises terminal tests:
You get one chance. That was it. Sorry old chap.
‘Old chap?’ So it’s only the boys at Taunton School who take exams – or perhaps only the boys who fail them? It seems rather a jocular term for the learned doctor (and the Telegraph) to be using for, as the OED says, chap is colloquial – and for young males:
‘Customer’, fellow, lad. (Todd, in 1818, said ‘it usually designates a person of whom a contemptuous opinion is entertained’; but it is now merely familiar and non-dignified, being chiefly applied to a young man.)
It seems this kind of ‘non-dignified’ language is heard not only in the Headmasters’ studies of the more select public (or private) schools but also in the higher echelons of the Civil Service, for on the front page of today’s Guardian we can read an email from an ‘official at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’, whose name, sadly, has been redacted, drawing up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident:
We need to ensure the anti-nuclear chaps and chapesses do not gain ground on this.
Surely a bit too jocular for such a topic, old chap? (Am I right to think that only a chap would write this?) At least it indicates that the chaps wear the trousers (well, not always literally, of course) and a certain sort of chap was being rather too familiar with the nuclear industry.