On this day in 1724, the great writer Frances Brooke was born. She was a successful English novelist, although she wrote a few plays as well. Her husband was a military chaplain, stationed for a time in Canada. As a result of this, Brooke ended up writing the first novel written in that country, The History of Emily Montague. And it is this novel that I want to discuss.
The History of Emily Montague was an epistolary novel. I haven’t read it. To be honest, I’m not that fond of the genre. But according to Wikipedia, the novel was used as an example of the the hyperbolic use of the word “literally” in the original Oxford English Dictionary. The sentence was, “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.” And this gives me an excuse to attack grammar snobs.
Many people go crazy when others use the word “literally” to mean “figuratively.” So after hearing the sentence above, the grammar snob will say, “It isn’t literally like feeding among the lilies — it’s figuratively!” But grammar is descriptive, not definitional. The time to have the fight about this was at least 250 years ago. Clearly, Brooke knew what she was doing. When she used “literally” as “figuratively” in the novel — two times — she italicized the words after it. She seems to have meant to be commenting on how the language was used by certain people of that time. It was clearly quite common even then.
So grammar snobs, get over yourselves! If Frances Brooke could make gentle fun of this grammatical silliness 250 years ago, you can at least do the same today. You aren’t impressing anyone with your knowledge. You’re just saying, “When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told me this!” And you don’t want to look that pathetic.
Happy birthday Frances Brooke!