Being over-nice about words

There are some words that literally drive me mad. Well no, not literally. Figuratively. They annoy me, but that doesn’t mean I have literally been declared insane as a result or have had to seek psychiatric help. The first of them is ‘Literally,’ which does not mean figuratively. It means the opposite of figuratively, and yet it’s almost always used the wrong way.

It started seriously annoying me in the early 1970s (I was at university, so I can date the terrible incident), when I heard a politician declare that the price of sugar had literally gone through the roof. I wasted a good half-hour (it was that or geographical statistics) trying to picture how a price could literally go through a roof. There is an excellent shark in Headington that seems to have gone through the roof, but not a price.

I know that now, apparently, the use of literally to mean figuratively has come to be acceptable, but I still choose to be annoyed.


This is an Icon in the Orthodox church, meaning an image so imbued with something sacred, something bigger, that for the worshipper it focuses all thought on that greater thing.

Tower Bridge. Okay, it is iconic. I know it is, because Hollywood uses it as a useful shorthand image, whenever they want to indicate that action has moved to London. One flash of the Statue of Liberty and we know we’re in New York. Eiffel Tower = Paris. Iconic means a brief and brilliant embodiment of something bigger. Things are not iconic simply because they are very big or very famous.

I do think though, since everyone seems so fond of the word Iconic, that some of our other cities should think about acquiring some iconic symbols. Newcastle has the Angel of the North, and Bristol has a suspension bridge. Is there anything than instantly conjures up Birmingham or Manchester?

Whitewash. I haven’t heard this one much recently, but I used to hear it all the time. It’s a sports one, so it doesn’t really count, because sports language never makes any sense. There’s always something seriously surreal about commentators’ desperate use of over-flowery poetry to describe a bunch of men in knickers running around after a ball.

But nothing poetic about whitewash, which is what is said if a team has just lost 235 to nil. If they called the result a washout, I’d understand. Whitewash is what you put over graffiti if you’re a town council, or over paintings of last judgements if you’re a hell-fire puritan, or on fences if you’re Tom Sawyer’s gullible friends. It implies hiding something. Covering it up so that no one will notice. It doesn’t mean losing a game decisively in front of TV cameras.

Tooth comb has, admittedly, been around a long time because my mother’s gran used to use the term. I still growl at it though. I have a tooth brush. I can brush my teeth. I really can’t comb them, not even with one of the Afro-combs I’ve still got, hanging around from the 80s. People who go through something with a tooth comb are engaging in behaviour that is deranged. I can understand going through something with a fine-toothed comb, whether in search of evidence, insignificant details or nits, but not with a tooth comb. Stop it.

Decimate. An ancient Roman punishment. The clue is in the name. Naughty legions would be punished by the execution of one in every ten soldiers, pour encourager les autres. It does not mean wiping something out entirely. Pompeii was not decimated by Vesuvius. It was destroyed. Before the Nazis came to power, there were 9.5 million Jews living in Europe. By the end of the war, 6 million of them had been murdered. That is not decimation, it’s attempted extermination.

I quibble. I know I’m being over-nice. Ah yes, nice…

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