Literalism

According to The Collins English Dictionary, literalism is ‘the disposition to take words and statements in their literal sense.
Take it from me, this dry-as-dust definition describes a condition which can momentarily lead to an almost psychedelic sense of unreality and some pretty amazing mental images.
I know, for I suffer from mild literalism.
The symptoms first appeared some years ago, when I was doing some work for a multi-national company and had been called to a meeting at a local factory. I had arrived early, and with time to spare I was passing the time perusing the noticeboard in the corridor.
A health and safety alert caught my eye.
Apparently, there had been a serious chemical leakage at a sister plant up north. Although it was a potentially lethal situation the danger was averted when, as the notice explained, ‘the staff evacuated.’
Now, evacuate can mean several things, but the way this sentence was written simply means that the staff defecated.
And who can blame them? I thought. It must have scared then to death. I was glad I didn’t have to clear up the mess though.
Of course, after a moment of sober reflection I realised that this was merely a case of sloppy writing. What was really meant was that the staff were evacuated.
Humph! How mundane. My initial reading was so much more colourful.
That’s the trouble with literalism. Everything is such a let down when you discover what people really mean.
Now in this instance the onset of my literalism was triggered by some slapdash grammar, but even correct English can set off an attack.
There was the time in Austria when a guide told me that in the 19th century English visitors were common in the Tyrol, and I spent a blissful few hours imaging hordes of drunken shell-suited Victorian Brits rampaging around Innsbruck, swearing, belching, and eating fish and chips from half-read copies of ‘The Sun’ newspaper.
Alas, the guide merely meant that English visitors were frequent, and not common as in vulgar or coarse. Ah well. It was a glorious thought whilst it lasted.
Here’s another example.
I was recently watching a TV programme about prehistory, (I know. I really should get out more.)
I have to admit that it was fairly heavy going, and the eyes were beginning to glaze over in preparation for the long blink, when suddenly the presenter said “About 10000BC the population of the world exploded.’
Now this perked me up no end, and the old brain cells started whirring.
The population exploded? Wow! Now that is interesting. Did they detonate all at once, or one after another, I wondered. Perhaps they blew up in groups, one tribe at a time. Either way there must have been one colossal bang. Why had nobody mentioned this before? And once again, for I have a tidy mind and like to get these things straight, I wondered who cleared up the mess.
Of course I soon realised that I had gone off the mark again. The presenter simply meant that the population had multiplied rapidly. (Damn. That won’t do either. I now have a picture of stone age people reciting their times-tables very quickly.) No, what the presenter meant, and what I should have written, was that the population rapidly increased in number. Which is no doubt historically more accurate but not nearly as much fun.
The English language is littered with snares for literalists like me, and there’s nothing I can do about it except bow down and accept the situation. How far do you think I should bend?

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