Tuesday 12 November 2013

The "Literally" Thing

Word Nerd

Hey, yo!

So a little while back I doodled on here about expressions - turns of phrase with various roots - that have drifted, just a little, from their intention when first used. Like turn the other cheek or the game is afoot. Lovely little examples of how language and culture shift over time.

'Cause that's what editors do. Rock and roll, baby. Rock and fuckin' roll.

Anyway, it got a very modest feedback on Facebook and Twitter, and there was a little chat about misuses that people were fond of - or irritated by, as it happens - and a bit of fond discussion about usage and etymology. Then it came up again.

What about "literally"?

Ah, yes. So this is an old chestnut, and one which the internet's guardians of language are very fond of railing about (seriously, I love the Oatmeal, but I haven't got your back on this one). And it's had a bit of a resurgence in everyone's minds, lately, since the Oxford English Dictionary made the decision to include the figurative sense of the word in its entry.

(Many tophats flew off many heads, that day. Many monocles popped out in outraged splutter. That terrible, terrible day.)

But wait!

Because seriously, this is a thing. And it's not a big deal. Untwist that there knicker, podner! And let me sort this out for you, so you can stop worrying yourself about it and go back to explaining the difference between affect and effect to people. Let me explain why your objections to this are all wrong...

"You can't just change what things mean in dictionaries!"

Well, that's just silly, for starters. If you couldn't "just" add or change words in the dictionary, it would look like this and would be worse than useless. Obviously English changes, and the dictionary tells us how to use words in English, so the dictionary has to change. You may choose to rail against drift in the language if you wish, although I can think of better uses of your time, but you can't really complain about the dictionary doing its job, which is reflecting how language is used. Don't blame the OED for being the world's pre-eminent English Dictionary...

"But it's the opposite of what it means! You can't do that!"

Why the hell not? Cleave means "to stick together" and "to separate." Sanction means "to grant approval to" and "to withdraw support from." Fast means "moving quickly" and "fixed and immobile." Trimming that tree, are you? Would sir like the secateurs or the tinsel?

And anyway, it doesn't. People say that the modern usage of literally means "figuratively," but who in the history of saying things with your face has ever actually pointed out, mid-metaphor, that they're being metaphorical? Can you imagine anyone saying, "My father figuratively exploded when he saw the scratch on the car; I say figuratively, because I don't want you to be alarmed at the prospect of my father's detonation. He's actually quite well. I meant to say he was very angry."?

(You can? Huh. I'd keep away from that guy. I bet he tucks in his t-shirt and collects used matches.)

The contemporary, figurative use of the word literally actually completely depends on both the speaker and the listener being aware of its traditional meaning. It's used for emphasis. I'm presenting what is clearly a metaphor ("I'm neck-deep in paperwork down here!") and then playfully suggesting that it's not a metaphor ("No, help me! I'm genuinely, literally, neck-deep in paperwork here! Haha! It's funny because it's not in fact true, but I'm pretending it is!") in order to emphasise the metaphor.

Get it? It's supposed to be funny, you jerk. And you ruined it.

I love you. Please don't be angry.

"But it's not what it's supposed to mean! It's new!"

You're dead right... in about the seventeenth century.

This usage goes back hundreds of years. There was only just such a thing as dictionaries when people started using literally this way.

Jane Austen was "literally rocked in bed" in a stormy night; Mark Twain was "literally rolling in wealth"; Louisa May Alcott's land "literally flowed with milk and honey." This is not a new thing. How can it be an irritating change to the language you speak if it happened before your grandmother's grandmother was born? There is honestly no way you can claim to remember a time when you only knew the original sense of the word and was unpleasantly surprised to discover its new meaning.

Which means you've learned your distaste of its figurative sense. Someone - some low-down son of a gun - has gone to the trouble of teaching you to be irritated by a usage that's been utterly ubiquitous since long before the people who taught the people who taught the people who taught them to hate it were even born.

So frankly, if you're gonna get angry at someone, I'd track down that guy. 'Cause he just plumb filled your world with aggravation to no good effect.

You're welcome.

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