Like Literally

LiterallyFirst things first: to anyone who thinks the wrong definition of the word literally was added to the dictionary last week, all I can say is that it’s a little hypocritical for someone who evidently doesn’t read to be so concerned all of a sudden for the fate of “the language.” If you’ve dug deep enough to know that it’s the Oxford English Dictionary that included this definition — “informal: used for emphasis while not being literally true” — in its update two years ago, with other dictionaries simply following suit, even that isn’t the whole story. The OED made mention of this sense of the word as early as 1903, and there are examples of the word used this way that date back to 1769. Here are some of the idiots who have misused the term: Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce. They literally killed the language, those people.

Assuming that we’ve all set aside our outrage, I admit that I’m not keen on this development, but neither will I mourn the soiling of some imaginary pristine language. I tend to agree with Martha Gill, who writes for The Guardian that the word, “in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can’t do anything right.” She points out that even using the word with its primary definition will call undue attention to the word itself, as the listener ponders for a second and realizes, “Oh, you literally meant literally.” And using the word any other way will enrage some people. So it may be best to avoid the word until those people go away.

Still, I think a vigorous defense of this development is warranted. Language is a beautiful, mysterious, vast construction that every single human being has played a part in shaping. But in terms of pure logic and problem-solving, there are a lot of unnecessary words out there. As our growing dependence on technology shrinks our imaginations, and texting/tweeting threatens to strip language down to its bare essentials, I think the expansion of a word’s definition is noteworthy. Of course, it’s possible the word literally will someday only be used in the newer sense. But then we’ll just have to find another word to mean “without metaphor or exaggeration.” Language is adaptable that way. Saying literally when you mean figuratively is illogical, but language isn’t bound by logic, as if it were mathematics. Fiona McPherson mentions the case of double negatives on the OED blog. In arithmetic, two negatives make a positive, but in language, the use of a double negative for emphasis isn’t going away anytime soon. Again, a simpleton named Geoffrey Chaucer is guilty here.

If you’re determined to make language serve logic, you’ll be even more disturbed by the existence of contranyms, also known as “Janus words” — words that can be used to mean two opposite things (such as to cleave, to dustto peruseto sanctionto screencustomfast, and apparent). In some cases, one definition will prevail over the other, so people who want to censor the newer definition of literally have reason to hope they’ll succeed. On the other hand, literally isn’t really a Janus word. No one uses it to emphasize figurativeness, as in “I literally didn’t get out of bed today, by which I mean I did get up to relieve myself occasionally but mostly stayed in my room.” It’s more of an intensifier, a contributor to the rhythm of the sentence that adds no meaning of its own. Language columnist Ben Zimmer ties this usage to the way we use the words reallytrulyabsolutely and positively. If any of those words is found sharing a sentence with an obvious metaphor, no one complains. Literally sounds more technical than those words, but it’s evolving in the same way.

For anyone who’s still not convinced, I happen to have a silver bullet, courtesy of Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the OED, who wrote for Slate in 2005,

In fact, the literal meaning of literal would be something like ‘according to the letter,’ but it’s almost never used this way. ‘He copied the manuscript literally’ would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters — to whole words, or to thoughts in general — we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are ‘literally on fire,’ how surprised can we be?

The purpose of a dictionary is to record how language is used by real people, educated or not, in all their various subcultures. Yes, the OED makes distinctions between standard and informal usage. We all have our pet peeves about language and grammar, and often our attitudes spring from the desire to preserve something beautiful, potent and precise. But the specific rules you or I follow are a matter of custom, sometimes extremely localized in time and space. We’re all better off if we know the histories of the words we use. This kind of knowledge comes from reading widely. As long as we keep doing that, the English language is in no danger of dying, not even figuratively.

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