We Need Another Hero

Your English literally drives me up a wall.

An entertaining and sometimes challenging facet of using words for a living is the need to balance formal, prescribed standards of English usage with the way words are more commonly used and understood in the living language.

The meanings of words are fluid, and evolve according to how they come to be used and understood in our culture from era to era.

Still, prescriptivist grammarians will ardently defend the right and wrong ways to use certain words. Some of these fights, in my opinion, are good fights.

Consider the much-discussed misuse of the word "literally." Hardly any thoughtful person becomes confused when someone casually tosses off a figurative usage like "she literally drove me up the wall" in casual conversation. And, indeed, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage acknowledges that "literally" has been used as a figurative intensifier (meaning "in effect" or "virtually") for hundreds of years. Still, depending on the context, the figurative use of "literally" (meaning "actually") adds nothing to already-hyperbolic statements like the one above. And, because of its well-known reputation as a poster child for poor usage, the misuse of "literally" can reflect badly on the user, especially when it appears in written form. Best to let "literally" retain its actual and definitive meaning, and to use it where it makes true and effective sense.

Others grammarian fights -- reasonable people must concede -- are probably lost causes... and often for the better.

Consider the adverb hopefully, whose original meaning -- "in a hopeful manner" -- goes back more than 400 years. It was not until the mid-20th century that a second usage of the word -- meaning "it is to be hoped" -- became widespread. Though the harshest sticklers among grammarians might insist that this second application (known as a disjunctive adverb) of "hopefully" should be avoided to eliminate confusing the two senses, the latter use of "hopefully" is now so prevalent and well-understood, that most editors and grammarians (as well as speakers and listeners) let this new usage pass without tearing their hair out (figuratively or literally).

Hopefully, we can put objections to such new-school usages to rest. And thus, the language evolves.

Who are your heroes?

Hero is another word whose (literally) mythic origins -- first as the definition of a demigod, and then as a human exemplar of great courage and self-sacrifice -- has taken on a more

popular slant -- that of a role model. Today, one finds the designation "hero" ascribed to just about anyone who endures adversity, or otherwise comports himself on the stage of American pop culture with some degree of dignity, grace or competence. And, today, it is sad to say, just about every successful swindler is somebody's "hero."

While we need not be too snobbish about it, we can be a little more discriminating in our choice of heroes, either of the popular or mythic kind.

Certainly the chemical engineering discipline has produced some heroes.

Who are some of your ChE heroes -- either of the old- or new-school variety?

What's YOUR definition of a hero? Comments?

angel image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wimbledonian/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
hero image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hippie/ / CC BY-NC 2.0


jvasko's picture

Great post. I can't name any heroes right now but I can relate to changes in the English language. My big pet peeve is when people overly use business jargon - overuse and/or misuse of words like "leverage" and "paradigm"!

Stuart_Krueger's picture

I am ashamed to say that I used the word "leverage" yesterday, and worst of all it was outside of work. I don't have any ChE heros, but if I think really hard I have some role models. These role models are individuals who have climbed the ranks using nothing but hard work. It is inspiring to see someone who is not interested in climbing the ladder do just that, climb the ladder, because they deserved it.

jvasko's picture

Stu, it is inspiring when one sees people who actually deserve it succeed. It's hopeful because so often I've seen people who are good at self-promoting climb the corporate ladder when in fact they don't deserve it.