Language change literally drives some fundraisers crazy

The horror!

Some dictionaries now give a new definition for the word literally!

The entire planet is literally going up in flames!

Or so you might think, to hear people react to the news that some dictionaries now acknowledge the odd way many English-speaking people use literally to mean almost exactly opposite of its main meaning. Something like, “not really, but in an emphatic way.”

Read about it here at Salon: According to the dictionary, “literally” now also means “figuratively”.

… people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

First: the dictionary isn’t “sanctioning” this use of the word. The dictionary is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is put in writing what is really happening in language. Dictionaries are guidebooks, not rulebooks. Here’s how Merriam-Webster puts it, at Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?

There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language…. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time.

What does all this have to do with fundraising?

Not much. But I bring it up because so many word-conscious people — those of us who write the words that persuade donors to give and fund the good causes of the world — are very unhappy about certain kinds of language change, and even take it as a personal mission to stop those things.

You really don’t need to do that. It’s not your job. And all your complaining won’t stop it.

Few of us are bothered by words that shifted in meaning before we showed up. Like silly (then spelled saelig), which used to mean blessed. That must have made people literally tear their hair out! Maybe that’s the real reason medieval monks had hair like that.

Or the weird way cleave means both divide things and connect things. Now, we just look it up in the dictionary and think, How odd our language is. And get on with our lives.

I won’t be using the “new” sense of literally in my fundraising any time soon. I don’t recommend you do it either. It will only make certain donors peevish and unhappy. Not very many donors, but they’ll be really, really peeved. They won’t hear a thing you have to say after they’ve seen your “wrong” literally, and a few will try to organize boycotts. Who needs that?

But language changes. And that’s a good thing. Even though it means an old “rule” gets revised now and then.

Put your energy on making language great. Not on freezing it the way it was when you were in college.

(This post first appeared on August 2, 2018.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.