Many years ago, a Florida National Guard colonel told me, “We are the guardians of the printed word.”
Why an Army officer? He and I were both involved in writing military directives, and as such, he asserted, we had the obligation to use the language correctly. It is a noble objective for the armed forces, if imperfectly achieved.
If writers of military directives are (or should be) guardians of the printed word, I would establish an even higher standard for journalists: we are (or should be) the guardians of the language, whether printed or spoken.
This definition causes me a little discomfort, because it implies that broadcasters are journalists. Broadcast is primarily an entertainment medium, while print is primarily an information (i.e. journalistic) medium, but there is quite a bit of crossover in both directions. Perhaps I have mellowed on that point.
As I assign to colleagues in both print and broadcast the mission of guarding the language with which we make our living, I propose that we begin with the proper use of “literally,” possibly the most abused word in the English language.
“Literally” and “figuratively” are modifiers that once were properly used by anyone old enough to hold a crayon, figuratively speaking.
One means, “Really, honest to goodness, that’s the way it is,” while the other means, “I am resorting to hyperbole to make a point,” or more likely, “I am exaggerating, but in a way that you, the listener, recognize as exaggeration.” That is because “hyperbole” is a word found primarily in crossword puzzles.
But “literally” has been corrupted in everyday language, especially by my broadcast brethren. In a sportscast (where the most egregious abuses typically occur) I heard a broadcaster say a few days ago something to the effect that a particularly good defensive lineman “has literally smothered quarterbacks this season.”
Actually, what he had achieved was something like 14 quarterback sacks in maybe a dozen games. All 14 quarterbacks apparently survived his “smothering,” because the lineman has not been charged with even a single count of homicide.
To make that broadcast even more absurd, moments later the same broadcaster said that two opposing quarterbacks in an upcoming game “literally grew up in the same neighborhood.” Arguably true, but unquestionably senseless usage. We can accept that they were childhood neighbors without the assertion that they “literally” grew up near each other.
If we ever return to proper use of “literally,” which I would not make book on, let us turn to the use of “unique.”
Unique means “one of a kind.” One and only one, literally. There is no such thing as “very unique.” That translates into “very one of a kind.”
And this week, I heard something ascribed the status of “completely unique,” which presumably trumps “partially unique.” On a scale of one-of-a-kind-ness, how unique is “completely unique” compared to “very unique”? Such abuse of our fragile language literally drives me crazy, figuratively speaking.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He realizes that trying to correct such endemic errors in linguistics is a hopeless quest. In a previous life, he was Don Quixote, in whose steps he follows in the pursuit of lost causes.)