Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Disruptive Language

Just when we think we know what English words mean, they change. Take "disruptive," for example, which used to be a bad thing, as when kids disrupted classes with various disturbances.

Now--but for how long?--it can mean "innovative," thanks to a Harvard Business professor, Clayton Christiansen, whose 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma gave the word a positive thrust, a new bit of jargon that the business world has picked up on: the idea of a disruptive innovation in the status quo.

For a critique of the social and implications of this usage, see the piece by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic (Aug. 15), who says that "disruptive" has replaced "empowering" and "transformational" as buzz-words.

A more serious linguistic problem, it seems, is posed when words are thought to mean what we all have agreed they mean and begin to be used--like hoi polloi--to signify the opposite of what the dictionary records.

Consider "literally," which quite often no longer means literally but its opposite, figuratively, rather than exactly.  Martha Gill in The Guardian has a recent piece on this. She suggests that the word is best avoided at present. Soon, like tattoo craze, it will fade.

She is referring to such popular usage as "I could literally eat an entire cow," when you want emphasis and don't really mean literally at all. Dictionaries, ever vigilant, have begun to record the newer usage, one of them stating that "literally can be used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

In other words, language doesn't necessarily mean it did until recently; and English, like the vines in my yard, is growing out of control. But before we panic, remember that at issue is conversational, colloquial English, not the written word. What is colloquial can rapidly change. The issue is not serious.

Writers, we must hope, will be more conservative and traditional in using "literally" to mean literally, not that disruptive newer usage.

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