I was going to write about literally this week, after the recent fuss over the word’s meaning. But Michael Rundell has already shown clearly how literally has more than one meaning – like it or not – and I’ve documented elsewhere how literally’s intensifying sense is literally centuries old.
Besides, many words have been changing while literally has been figuratively hogging the limelight. As we reported on Monday, Macmillan Dictionary is undergoing a major update: new words, phrases, and senses have been added, and existing entries have been revised to remove dated material or make them more illustrative of current usage. A lot of these changes, as you’d expect, relate to technology. Digital culture grows and mutates at a fierce pace, and a modern reference needs to reflect this in its definitions and example sentences.
Sometimes the alterations are subtle but significant. If you look up camera, for instance, sense 1 says it may be “part of a mobile device”. Several years ago this would not have been so, and several years before that it wouldn’t even have made sense. Macmillan Dictionary now also specifies analogue camera, one that “uses film rather than electronic signals”, where once that would have been implicit. Indeed, when I visited Madrid recently I did something I’d never done on my travels before: left the camera at home. I was travelling light, and my phone did the job.
I mean my smartphone, of course. (I still use a dumbphone, but I don’t call it that; it seems unfair.) Swipe, tap and gesture are now commonly used with smartphones, tablets and other handheld devices, and so their dictionary entries have been updated accordingly. Something even my old phone has is a calendar, but it’s not so long ago that the calendars people used were mainly paper-based. So Macmillan Dictionary’s new definition takes account of calendar’s rapid evolution, indicating that it can be “a piece of software on a computer, mobile device etc.”
When I wrote about the unreality of real estate language last year, I didn’t mention online real estate, but this sense is included in the update. Likewise curate and curator, which I’ve discussed in relation to linguistic inflation in job titles: their definitions now contain references to their newly established meanings. So many changes, and I’ve barely got started. If James Gleick is right, and cultural change is happening ever faster (fstr, as the book cover has it), then language will reflect this – and dictionaries must reflect that.Email this Post