In my New Testament class at Michigan State all those years ago, Professor Anderson was going through those sweet old liberal Protestant efforts to explain away the miracle stories, and a student asked, “Why can’t we take them literally?”
“Because literalists are”—I recall he said but may be wrong—“clods.” He went on: “Nicodemus was the first literalist. Jesus told him he had to be born again, and he asked how he was supposed to get back into his mother’s womb.”
There is a kind of literalism that creeps into strictures on usage, and the people who go in for that make no more sense than Nicodemus. The other day Jan Freeman returned once again to the hoary stricture that over cannot be used to mean more than because it refers to a spatial relationship rather than an increase—despite having been used in exactly that sense in English for centuries.
In a comment on her post, Jonathon recalled being instructed that prices cannot be raised or lowered, because they are not physically moved; the can only be increased or decreased.
Ms. Freeman quotes Paul Brians as saying that people with these views are ignoring “the role metaphor plays in language” (as do those who insist that all Scripture is literally true and try to find evidence of the Noachian Flood in the Grand Canyon).
In her book on Ambrose Bierce, Ms. Freeman locates the origin of such peeves in the mistaken belief that a word should have only a single meaning. One sees it as well in the etymological literalists who insist that a word—decimate, for one—must not stray from its origins, particularly if it derives from Latin or Greek.
Now, I am a copy editor, on the prowl daily for careless combinations and ever aware of Mark Twain’s distinction that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. My job and my quest are to use language as precisely as we can manage.
But informed copy editors must also be aware that there is also a false precision, a will-o’-the-wisp that will lead them off into the marsh and waste valuable time.