I could literally care less about your grammar hangups

And other words that give sticklers a conniption

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

The English language, in case you didn’t know, is not the Parthenon. Tourists don’t line up to visit its crumbling façade. Nor is it like the cockroach, destined to stick around long after the dust has settled on the nuclear apocalypse —mostly because cockroaches can’t talk.

But it is an organism—growing, changing and evolving.

And you can’t stop its progress. While the French treat their language like a venerated institution—peep their resistance to the use of the word “email”—us Anglophones prefer to keep our mother tongue like a college house party. You want in? Whatever, man. Grab a red Solo cup and have at it.

What I’m saying is, words and phrases gain new meaning over time. Previous definitions fall out of style. A new coat of paint gets thrown onto a faded wall. Here are just a few examples:

Literally

“Like, oh my God, I could literally just stab my eyes out,” she said. And listening to her reach for that word, when the one she probably wanted was “virtually,” you may feel like doing some gouging of your own.

The problem is, that usage is just fine. When would you employ the “correct” usage anyway, save for a piece of creative writing?

The banana peel came out of nowhere. No sooner did John step on it than he was thrust onto his back. This sent one of his shoes flying off. Before John knew it, he found himself, literally, with his foot in his mouth.

Relax, prescriptive grammarians, you can still write about characters who’ve experienced a not-so-figurative version of a figure of speech. The old meaning isn’t off the table. It’s just far more likely that you’ll hear people using this word to create emphasis. And there’s literally nothing wrong with that.

Could(n’t) care less

Has any other phrase in recent memory triggered pedants more than this one? “Tut tut,” they’ll say if you omit the -n’t. “So does that mean you still care a little?”

What’s the right usage? Dez could care less. (YouTube)

But aside from the finger-waggers and, most likely, your editor, does it matter? Is this a hill that we, as Anglophones, must die upon? In a culture mired in sarcasm, you could easily make the argument that “could care less” is a snarky sibling—the same exact sentiment, but said with a sneer.

Bad

Hey, you, 90s kid! Remember this:

A brief scene from a 90-minute commercial for Super Mario Bros. 3 (YouTube)

For those of you who never knew a world without internet, there was a brief period around the turn of the century when up was down. Left was right. A word that used to have a negative connotation somehow took on the same meaning as “good.”

I don’t get it either.

The first known usage of bad in its inverted meaning actually predates TVs and telephones. Here’s an example from way back in the day (AKA history times):

She sutny fix up a pohk chop ‘at’s bad to eat. (George Ade’s Pink Marsh, 1897)

So it may have skipped a generation (or three) on the way to the playgrounds of my youth. Then it pulled a David Copperfield on all of us. In the same wheelhouse is a word out of which I’ve gotten plenty of mileage…

Sick

No, something that’s sick isn’t huddled over a toilet blowing chunks. It’s totally awesome, righteous and excellent. You can thank skaters and snowboarders for this one, bro!

Sick is a more recent arrival, first seen as a US synonym for ‘excellent’ or ‘very impressive’ in 1983 is particularly common in skateboard and snowboard culture, where it can be used to imply an element of risk and danger.

“Sick” is one word I still say on occasion, ironically or otherwise, without feeling a tinge of embarrassment. I must confess, however, that I haven’t had much luck getting “gross,” “disgusting” or “puke-worthy” to happen.

Someday, people. Someday.

Gay

Do you remember snickering every time you sang this line from “Deck the Halls?”

Don we now our gay apparel.

No, that particular Christmas carol doesn’t carry a winking double entendre. But you’d be forgiven for thinking so if you grew up in a time when the word “gay” referred only to sexual orientation.

Long the bane of English teachers attempting to teach classic literature to a room full of sweaty, pimple-faced hormone factories, “gay” once meant “happy.”

Imagine, if you will, an alternate timeline where Walt Disney chose the former as the name for one of his seven dwarves. Maybe a generation of kids would have grown up knowing better than to use it as a pejorative. Who are we kidding? Probably not.

Viral

Thank the internet for “spreading” this one. (See what I did there?) While “viral” used to pertain to “anything caused by, or related to, a virus,” it’s now more commonly associated with the spread of information.

The first “viral” video I remember watching (YouTube)

Here’s a short list of other words the internet ruined:

  • Cloud
  • Timeline
  • Network
  • Like
  • Friend (as a verb)

Evolution can be fickle.

It’s like old Chuck Darwin used to say:

Only the strong survive.

Okay, he didn’t say it exactly like that. But the point he was trying to make applies just as much to language as it does to, I don’t know, tortoises or something. With every utterance of “I could care less,” the so-called “correct” way of saying things dies out, while the new meaning grows more powerful,.

Then, one day, the dictionary folks cave, a new definition is born and all of sudden you have to start biting your tongue around that one guy. You know who I’m talking about. Sure, you could correct him, but he has friends. If his friends prefer the same usage of the phrase, and their friends do, too, pretty soon you’ll be the one who’s wrong.

So you’d better just get used to it now—at least until the pendulum swings back the other way. Bad is, well, bad again. There’s hope for “literally” yet.


What changes in our language are you bitter about? Let me know in the comments.


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