It's odds on that I'll get literal

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Strange things happen to words these days. Sometimes people use words that are never heard in daily life - for instance, train announcers say such things as "this train will terminate" and "please tender the correct fare". People use American expressions involving images that they have never seen first-hand in their lives - ball parks, for instance, and rain checks, and double whammies. People touch base and get their heads round things and have attitudes and make favourable noises about things.

The strangest thing that ever happens to words has been suggested to me by a reader from south London called Norman Shepherd. His theory is that many words are used to mean something that is directly opposite to their real meaning, and I am afraid that he thinks journalists are particularly to blame. One of the things that annoys him most is the misuse of "quantum leap".

"This makes me really mad," he writes. "By definition of the people who invented the phrase, a quantum jump or leap is the minimum possible change that can take place - NOT a major change. Hence, to say that the Government is expecting a quantum jump in the unemployment figures means that the Government expects an increase of one."

This so worried me that I went to the lengths of looking up the phrase in a dictionary. The definition of "quantum" in Collins certainly bears Shepherd out: "Quantum: the smallest amount of some physical property, such as energy, that a system can possess according to the quantum theory." Hmm. Seems pretty small. But hold on. What is this? Quantum leap also gets its own entry: "Quantum leap: a sudden highly significant advance: breakthrough. (From its use in physics meaning the sudden jump of an electron, atom, etc from one energy level to another.)"

Well, a quantum is certainly small, but maybe the leap can be big? No matter. On to Mr Shepherd's next exhibit.

"State of the art. Nowadays it is used to mean `at the cutting edge of technology'. It really means `run of the mill'. For example, a chemical engineer required to design a distillation column for the separation of a new mixture would `search the literature' to determine the state of the art. That is to say, to determine how people designed similar systems. If that knowledge were insufficient, he would do a bit of R&D to fill out the required information."

Yes, I can see how "state of the art" might mean "run of the mill". But oddly enough, Mr Shepherd has included another example in that paragraph without noticing it - the word "literature".

For many centuries the word literature has meant the best writing, done by the best writers. "Literature is news that stays news," said Ezra Pound. But nowadays it means the opposite. It means any old stuff written by any old person about anything. "I'm thinking of going on holiday to Spain, so I've got all the literature." Does the man who says that mean books by Lorca and Cervantes? No, he means brochures from the travel agent. The exact opposite to literature.

Other words that annoy Mr Shepherd - or, rather, other misuses - include "egregious", "draught" and "odds on".

"Egregious. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its meaning as `outstanding' or `remarkable in a good sense'. Nowadays it seems to be used also as `outstandingly bad'.

"Draught (as in canned beer). Draught means: `beer or wine etc stored in bulk, esp in a cask'. The present canned beer sold as draught does not taste like it, possibly because the gas is nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide. Nitrogen is the hitherto waste product from the distillation of liquid air to produce oxygen.

"Odds on. Many journalists use odds on when they mean odds against. Here is an example from the Independent on Sunday: `Many purchasers of scratch cards have been attracted by the odds on winning, which are 5 to 1'."

Slang, of course, uses opposite meanings liberally. Jazz people used to say "bad" when they meant "great". Young people now say "wicked" for the same reason. And once you begin to think about it, you start finding examples of your own. The word "adult", for example. Applied to a film, it means at best "pornographic" and at worst "childish". And as for the word "literally" ...

It never ceases to amaze me that people can still say things like "I literally had kittens" or "the eyes literally started out of my head". They did not literally have kittens at all. Literally having kittens means just that: actually having kittens. What they mean is "figuratively".

Can anyone think of any other good examples? Or even bad ones?