News & Ideas


The truth literally matters

Please don’t give up on this column because it initially sounds like a discussion of grammar or usage or some other English-y things about which I could not care less. (OK, I’ll admit the end of that sentence originally said “English-y things I couldn’t care less about,” but I changed it to avoid derision from fellow English geeks for ending a sentence with a preposition. That means I actually could care less, but my point is there will be a point. I promise.)

Late last summer, we reached a milestone in the English language. Actually, the milestone was reached in 2011, and English geeks had nearly given up talking about it by the time the popular press finally realized the change last summer.

The milestone was the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) changing the definition of the word “literally” to include meaning the exact opposite of what the word means. “Literally” is now defined as both “exactly,” and “not actually true.” A word that has been used to illustrate that something is real and actual and not hyperbole, has been redefined so we now “officially” can’t be sure if something is literally literal. And this isn’t some slang dictionary or directory of common American usage – it’s the Oxford, England English Dictionary!

An Oxford University professor explained: “It’s not such an unusual development since the word has been used metaphorically for centuries. A similar development affected ‘really’, which originally meant ‘in reality’, but which developed into an intensifier meaning ‘very, thoroughly’.”  In other words: “We give up.”

The point (as promised) is that when Michael Jackson paraphrased Lenin and/or Goebbels, singing “Be careful what you do, because the lie becomes the truth,” and when Mark Twain said “The difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat only has nine lives,” they were right. That wisdom, however, didn’t factor those lies multiplied by the figurative inmates literally running the virtual asylum known as “the internet,” causing OED and other former arbiters of accuracy to throw up their hands (metaphorically).

We can’t. As long as ethanol opponents continue to find ancient energy balance numbers, insanely inaccurate water use stats, purely fictitious pollution figures, subsidies that no longer exist, food vs. fuel fiction, and E15 horror stories, someone has to direct people to the truth. The truth matters, and it will always win out… eventually. Even if it seems like we’re literally the only people who care about the truth right now.


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