In my last post, I hyperbolically decried society’s relentless plunge into automotive anarchy. Today my target is the language. It’s not just a matter of words and phrases losing their punch or even their meaning. That problem has been painfully obvious for a long time. In fact, I’ve written about that very subject, here and here, among other places.
No, this is far worse. We’re actually moving backwards. We’re using words and phrases that are the polar opposite (180, not 360, degrees away from the true meaning) of what is intended.
Literally – These days, when someone talks about something being “literally” whatever, more often than not, they mean “figuratively”, which is its opposite. For example, someone will tell you about a time when he was literally starving to death or she was literally scared out of her mind. There’s nothing at all literal about those phrases. They’re metaphors, meant to be taken as such.
I could care less – Of course you could care less. You can always care less, unless you couldn’t care less, which is what you mean. When you hear someone say they could care less, they always (no exaggeration, always) mean they couldn’t care less. There’s a significant difference, if you care.
Better than the next – This is a more recent phenomenon, but it’s my favorite. If I had a nickel for every time I heard it said that each <insert noun here> is better than the next, I’d have… a lot of nickels. I just heard a doctor use this incorrect expression yesterday. What is intended is “better than the last“, i.e. a description of increasing quality.
The most common perpetrator of this verbal gaffe has to be the “Phantom Gourmet“, where the boisterous Andelman brothers (and occasionally, the masked purple one himself) consistently refer to restaurant menus each of whose items is “better than the next.” They can’t possibly realize they’re insulting those restaurants by declaring that the menu items are on a downward spiral.
The most visible offense occurs in one of my favorite movies, and it’s there for everyone to see. In a scene from the otherwise spectacular “The Bourne Ultimatum”, Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon) is on a train reading an article about himself in a London newspaper. If you are quick enough or simply freeze on the right frame, you’ll see the very first line in the article reads:
His code name was Jason Bourne, but he had many identities, each one seemingly more deadly then [sic] the next.
No!! Each is more deadly than the last. Otherwise no one would care about Bourne, knowing he would become less and less deadly until he became barely an annoyance. (Note that the same sentence contains another error: The word “then” should be “than”. No wonder they shot the reporter.)
There is a good use for this error, though. It’s a great way to insult someone without letting them know they’ve been dissed. Next Sunday, tell your pastor that each of his sermons is better than the next.
Finally the most common and, in my opinion, most heinous example:
Adult – Look, we all know there’s nothing “adult” about movies, books, or web sites typically falling under that classification. Such prurient and puerile crap caters to emotionally and often mentally underdeveloped individuals, not those deserving the label “adult”.
There are probably a hundred more examples in common use. There could even be a few in this post, but I could care less.