Lexicon Valley

How a Child’s Universe Was Literally Turned Upside Down

Last night, my 12-year-old cried herself to sleep, heartbroken and inconsolable.

Nobody had died. Her parents hadn’t battled in a drunken rage. She hasn’t been reading Little Women. And no, there was no seventh-grade romantic melodrama afoot. It was just a case of lost innocence, more or less my fault. I don’t know what came over me. She’s still a little girl, yet I had told her something no child should have to reckon with: “Literally” is now deemed an acceptable synonym for “figuratively.”

Yes, due to the nature of a living language in a constant state of mutation—whether from idiom, dialect, neologism, or just plain misuse—a word can actually come to mean its opposite. God knows, when I first got the news a few months back I also reacted poorly. But now here was my precious punkin’ girl, her face buried in her pillow, sobbing as if the dog had gone to the farm.

And the kid’s no crybaby. She has handled death, Santa-lessness and the Jonas Brothers’ breakup with equanimity. But she has been raised to believe there are rules—rules that can’t be negated by simply breaking them over and over. The news about “literally” was not just linguistically nonsensical; it disrupted her sense of order. It made the world seem unjust, and unsafe. As the esteemed Drs. Peter Venkman, Raymond Stantz, and Egon Spengler—a.k.a. the Ghostbusters—so eloquently put it:

Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes! The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!

Crying over a dictionary entry. I’d say I’ve never seen anything like it, but that isn’t quite true. Twenty years ago, my eldest—then a 6th-grader—was similarly horrified to learn that some Congressional Democrats would vote against NAFTA, despite believing it to be sound economic policy, so as not to lose the support of labor unions. To discover that political expediency trumped principle was more than she could bear. Tears flowed … over regional trade policy.

Back then, I tried to calm my child by explaining Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of competing self-interest pushing the society and the economy haltingly forward, versus uncompromising ideological purity yielding the very political gridlock we are experiencing now. Last night, I took a similar tack, reminding my baby that much of the language every kid uses now would have so been considered vulgar or incorrect in very recent history, including that usage of “so” and the word “kid” for child.

Her reply, like her big sister’s in October 1993: “Wahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Truth be told, teachable-moment-wise, this episode had me ambivalent. A year and a half of co-hosting a linguistics podcast has liberalized my worldview, softened my prescriptive hard edges and generally muted my scolding nature. Seizing on others’ malapropisms and usage errors not only ignores the inherent malleability of language, but it’s kind of obnoxious. Officious. Pedantic. Condescending. It had not escaped my attention that my adorable little girl, for all her wit and charm, was beginning to go all schoolmarm on her adorable little friends—who surely were beginning to regard her as a pain in the middle-school ass.

On the other hand, I myself am a former child who was taught language rules that were described as immutable and unbending. They governed “fewer” versus “less”; “like” versus “as”; the proper use of the apostrophe—all of which unbreakable rules are broken as casually as hangover promises. For my entire adult life I’ve flinched at “No shoe’s, no shirt, no service,” only to be told now not to sweat the small stuff. I’m sympathetic intellectually, but not viscerally. “Over a million people” and “massive hole” still feel very wrong.

But parenting isn’t about revealing personal conflicts. It’s about knowing how to meter the slider between comfort and truth. Irregardless, and for all intensive purposes, I failed. Poor kid. Her brain literally exploded.

A version of this post originally appeared on MediaPost.