This literally makes me explode

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on how age-old dictionary definitions can only be trusted half the time

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Nury Vittachi


An accounting software maker asked the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary to make their definition of the word “accountant” more accurate. Instead of just saying “person who keeps or inspects financial records,” it should mention advisory functions. Other organizations backed the request and many people signed a petition.

Dictionary writers did not immediately respond – and I can tell you why.

Truth is, the accuracy of a word is irrelevant.

These nerdy academics changed their job description some years ago – and it’s still causing no end of trouble.

For centuries, dictionaries have been judge and jury for solving disputes about words. Untold millions of arguments during Scrabble games were solved by the wielding of dictionaries showing that “bumblepuppist,” (i.e. she is such a bumblepuppist) or “quixotry,” (i.e. his over-the-top quixotry foiled our plans), were proper words.

No longer.

Writers of English dictionaries, inevitably based in the West, have been filled with zeal for extreme political correctness.

They have embraced the position that the public is automatically right, even when it is demonstrably wrong. “We describe, we don’t proscribe,” they now say.

So, for example, if the average person on the street defines accountant as “boring male in a grey suit,” that’s the official definition – regardless of the fact that many or most accountants are exciting, well-dressed women.

This new policy dismayed huge numbers of people (well, me and my mates) when it was applied to the word “literally,” which means “actually, not figuratively.”

“I literally ate my hat” means that I chopped my hat into small squares of felt and put them in my mouth.

But airhead celebrities on television get the definition backwards, using it to mean “figuratively, not actually.”

So, for example, actress Jamie Lee Curtis posed a rhetorical question during a TV interview: “How many college students do we hear in their freshman year literally explode?”

Clearly college students rarely undergo spontaneous combustion, so the actual answer is “zero.” But Ms. Curtis argued that pretty much all of them “literally exploded.”

On CNN, singer Naomi Judd said: “We literally become whatever we think about all day.” That means that this columnist is a remarkably capable dish of chicken and potato curry.

On Fox News, a reporter said: “Court observers saw a key defence witness literally melt down on the stand.” The report made the hearing sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie.

In all cases, I am sure, there would have been significant numbers of intelligent, literate people watching television who would have laughingly pointed out the mistake to their children.

But then what happened? If any of the children had gone to their dictionaries to check, they would have discovered something.

Daddy is wrong.

Airhead celebrity is right.

In some modern dictionaries, the word “literally” now has two meanings. One is “not figuratively.” The other is “figuratively.”

Both are now presented as correct, even though they are opposites.

What does this mean? Clearly this portends the end of civilization.

But I suppose we could see it as an opportunity. For example, we could gang up and regularly replace words such as “handsome,” “noble,” “deserving” and “underpaid” with “accountant.”

Example: “James Bond is tall, dark and accountant.”

The dictionaries would eventually have to update their definitions: “Accountant. Noun. 1) Handsome. 2) Noble. 3) Deserving a pay rise.”

Worth a try, no?

Anyway, those people mentioned at the beginning of this piece should at least face that fact that we’ll never get a truly accurate definition of “accountant” into dictionaries, which would be something like this:

“Accountant. Noun. Person in a business most likely to know what’s really going on and least likely to be able to do anything about it.”


Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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February 2019 issue
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