If there’s one thing prescriptivists hate, it’s children. I mean, it’s bad enough the way that babies trample the rules of English with their run-on babbling, or how toddlers perversely insist on using their neologism goed as the past tense of go when went has been standard for centuries. But I suppose you can partially dismiss those as products of insufficient education; there’s still hope for them. What really gets the prescriptivists’ goat is older children — those needlessly rebellious teenagers. Here they are, just about as educated as they’ll get, and they’re abusing the language left and right.
See, in the prescriptivists’ day, teens understood the meaning of words and respected the sanctity of their parents’ language. Far be it from them to make up new words when old ones would suffice; everyone knows that slang is a worthless invention of the pop-swilling, face-stuffing youth of today. These rotten kids today muck it all up, wantonly using words for purposes directly counter to their God-given meanings. Exhibit A for the prosecution: the use of literally in situations where figuratively is meant.
I intend to do a longer post later about why, despite the ire of prescriptivists, this use of literally isn’t so bad; in fact, it actually makes some sense. But for now, to soften people up to this seemingly indefensible claim, I’d like to quote to you from Amy Vanderbilt‘s Complete Book of Etiquette (1958 edition), which I found myself reading the other morning:
“And he literally dances attention on the girl he has brought to the party…”
This is not meant at all literally. What would it even mean to literally “dance attention” on someone? It frankly sounds quite painful. (By the way, I looked on Google to see if “dances attention” was used anywhere else, in case it was a weird 1950s idiom, but it doesn’t seem to have been.)
It is odd that Amy Vanderbilt would use literally non-literally, given the highfalutin’ tone of the book. This is an etiquette book, not a grammar book, and there are a lot of other dreadfully pressing matters of etiquette to deal with (such as what to do if you are given an audience with the Pope), so it doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about proper language use. What it does have, though, is oddly specific and distinctly cranky. For instance, it derides Is she expecting? as a “particularly vulgar” way of asking if someone’s pregnant, and says that there is “something very low class” about girlfriend, which she claims “in all cases it is better to substitute ‘girl, who is a friend of mine’.” So someone who wouldn’t deign to use girlfriend has no problem with a non-literal use of literally? Wow. That’s a surprise.
I don’t know if this reflects a general willingness to use non-literal literally in the 1950s or if it is peculiar to Amy Vanderbilt, but I was honestly shocked to see it used by someone who fusses over minor grammatical points. So is Amy Vanderbilt wrong or are the kids today right? I’ll try to give my opinion before the month is out, but in the meantime, what’s your take?
[Update: Commenter Emily and Jan Freeman over at the Boston Globe figured out that the source of this construction is ‘dancing attendance’, which apparently actually was in common use. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard it, and I still don’t quite understand it, but at least Amy Vanderbilt didn’t spin it out of whole cloth. All the same, the key point remains: one cannot literally dance attention on anything.]