Literally


No, this isn’t about literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s about the word “literally.”

Language_instinctFaithful readers of this blog will know that, when it comes to language, I’m a fairly ardent usagist/ descriptivist. I think language is a biological function that depends on constant change in order to work. I tend to embrace changes in the language rather than resisting them. I think grammar books would be more effective if they taught the rules of the language as it actually is, rather than as the authors think it ought to be. And I think that arguing “that’s not what this word really means,” when it’s how the majority of people using the language use it and understand it, is absurd. There is no objective, Platonic form of the word “nice” — it means what we understand it to mean.

MagritteBut while I am a passionate descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what the words we use mean (as well as on the structures we use put them together), then language becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth discussing whether any particular change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and/or graceful.

Which brings me back to “literally.”

Dictionary_merriam_websterThe meaning of the word “literally” seems to be changing. And it’s changing to a meaning that’s almost the exact opposite of the original meaning. The original meaning
 well, according to Merriam Webster Online, the original meaning was “according with the letter of the scriptures,” which kind of proves my point about language changing. But for some time now, it’s meant actual, real: “adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression,” “free from exaggeration or embellishment,” “characterized by a concern mainly with facts.”

Mag_glass_requestThe new meaning is almost exactly the opposite. It’s used to mean “virtually.” And it’s used as an intensifier, like “really” or “very.” It’s used to mean, “This didn’t actually happen in the strictest sense, but it was so intense that it seemed as if it did.” My favorite example of the new usage is still the first time I heard it about 25 years ago, when a radio announcer describing a hijacking said, “The stewardesses were literally beside themselves.”

And I do have a problem with this.

But my problem isn’t “that’s not what ‘literally’ really means.”

My problem is that the original meaning is extremely useful, and we don’t currently have another word to replace it.

ScreamingThe original meaning of “literally” is a strikingly useful one. As a writer, when I’m trying to say that something is actually, factually true — that I’m not exaggerating, I’m not using hyperbole, it happened in the real world in the exact way I’m describing it — “literally” is an excellent word. “I was literally screaming with rage over changes in the language”… that means something specific. It doesn’t mean, “I was so angry I wanted to scream with rage,” or, “I almost screamed with rage,” or, “it felt like I was screaming with rage.” The image of someone actually, factually, physically screaming with rage is a very expressive one — and it’s completely different from the image of someone who’s just pretty darned peeved.

Dictionary_2But as the meaning of the word “literally” changes, I find that I have to clarify when I use it. And because we don’t currently have another word to replace the old meaning, I wind up using several words where one used to do. I say things like “literally — and I mean ‘literally’ literally, not virtually.” Or “this literally, physically, factually happened.”

Computer_keyboardWhich sucks. I’m already a verbose enough writer without having to give up a single word that meant exactly what I meant, and replace it with six words that more or less get the idea across.

And while I think “that’s not what this word really means” is a terrible argument against a word changing, I do think that “the original meaning of this word is useful, we don’t have another word to replace it, and we shouldn’t have to use six words where one would do” is an excellent one.

However.

I recognize that the new meaning of “literally” seems to have precedent. (I’m not a language scholar, so if there are any language scholars reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Magnifying_glassLook at the word “really.” “Really” is commonly used as an intensifier. True, it sometimes is used to mean “actually” or “literally”: “she sees things as they really are,” “that’s not what ‘literally’ really means.” But it’s very, very commonly used as an intensifier — “I was really angry about this,” “that sunset was really stunning.” And even the most ardent prescriptivist wouldn’t bat an eye at this usage. There’s no comment in the dictionary to say that it’s non-standard or controversial. It’s one of the accepted and most commonly-used meanings of the word.

Virtual_realityBut the root of the word is the word “real.” And I assume that it became an intensifier in exactly the same way “literally” has: people were creating emphasis by essentially saying, “This didn’t actually happen in the strictest sense, but it was so intense that it seemed as if it did.” (Ditto the intensifier “very,” which comes from the same root as “verily” or “verity” — i.e., truthful.)

SunsetAnd nobody pitches a fit when someone says, “That sunset was really stunning.” Nobody says, “Oh, it was ‘really’ stunning? It knocked you into unconsciousness in the ‘real’ sense, did it?” My cousin and I laughed ourselves sick over “The stewardesses were literally beside themselves”… but we wouldn’t have batted an eye over, “The stewardesses were really beside themselves.” Adapting a word meaning “real” or “true” for use as an intensifier clearly has precedent.

Two_wayWhat’s more, there’s precedent for words changing to mean almost their exact opposites. The word “nice,” for instance, used to mean (and still sometimes does mean) “overly fastidious” or “nitpicky.” Not a very nice thing to be… certainly not by the most common current meaning of “nice,” i.e. pleasant and agreeable. (And before it meant “picky,” it meant “foolish” or “wanton.” Also not very nice things to be. Well, a case could be made for “wanton”…)

Finally:

WavesArguing against a change in language that’s obviously catching on is like arguing against the tides, or against species evolving to adapt to changing environments. I could blog about “literally” all day long, I could devote my entire blog to this issue alone, I could rally my fellow bloggers to the cause… and it would still do fuck-all. It might slow the process down a bit, but it’s not going to stop it.

JawsThe need of the language for new intensifiers seems to be endless, a black hole of ravenous hunger that never dies and is never sated. Once a word has become a commonly used intensifier, it becomes, well, common, and no longer all that intense. “Excellent” now mostly means “pretty darned good,” and you have to say something like “exceptional” if you want to convey the idea of excelling. And “really” and “very” are now completely half-assed intensifiers, the intensifiers you use when you want to say, “Well, it was intense, but it wasn’t all that intense.”

So while I will continue to grieve over the loss of “literally,” I think I have to be realistic and give up the fight. Instead, I’ll take the energy I used to spend battling the new meaning, and use it instead searching for a word to replace the old one.

“Factually.” Hm, that could work. Any thoughts?

Comments

  1. Russell says

    When I first became interested in philosophy, I was into Ayn Rand. I remember a lot of things she said, but one thing stood out; “words have exact meaning”. However I dont think she thought it through because there are some words, like ‘quality’, and ‘literal’ and a host of others that seem to contain more meaning than it is possible to know or use without proper context. So now I say, “words have exact meaning within the context of a particular subject.”
    English words seem to be used primarily these days as a context driven language, we use the same words for so much. If you take the time to analyze everything you hear in conversation, you might become confused by the constant shifting of meaning applied to words. If you find yourself in a context that you dont understand it can be rather confusing.
    Good post.

  2. Leon says

    I’m coming in awful late to this one, but the misuse of “literally” is something I just have to comment on.
    Way to go in picking this battle, Greta! People using “literally” to mean “figuratively” has to be one of the most obnoxious things in current usage. And you’re right; there’s no substitute.
    As to what to do about it…”factually” might work, but I don’t know that it has quite the oomph you’re looking for. When I’m writing and I want to say “literally”, I stop to make sure I really mean it, and then I write “literally”. If I’m not talking about a literal event, I use some other description.
    If I’m feeling paranoid about being misunderstood, I might try to find a clever phrase to add in the next couple sentences, pointing out the real effects that this literal event had.

  3. Konokrad says

    Lots(all?) of languages use ‘literally’ as an intensifier. Since it is almost always used as such only with the most outlandish metaphors (eg. the stewardesses were beside themselves), the chance of confusion is minimal. It dosen’t make sense to use it with plausible metaphors. ie ‘I was literally sceaming’ still means ‘I was screaming’, not ‘I was metaphorically screaming’.

  4. says

    The misuse of ‘literally’ still annoys me. The worst thing is that I catch myself doing it as well, but I’ve gotten into the habit of quoting Stephen Fry when I do, adding “and I use that word quite wrongly”…
    It seems to work, although I still (sometimes even literally) smack myself when I do it.

  5. Kenneth Polit says

    Thanks Greta, another word usage that bugs me is unique, not the word so much, but the use of modifiers with it. Very unique is BS. Unique is binary, something either is or is not unique. There are no varing degrees.

  6. Azkyroth says

    I would assume “literally”‘s historical/core meaning is “as written.” “Really” meaning “seemed real” makes some sense; “as written” meaning “evoking what’s written…” isn’t as obviously different when put that way, but…

  7. says

    Er, I must have missed something, because “actually” seems like a perfectly fine substitute for your intended use of “literally”. For example, “The stewardesses were actually beside themselves.” or, “I was actually stomping my feet in rage when I read that.”
    The C-OED defines “actually” as: “as the truth or facts of a situation”. This would seem to work.
    I doubt you’ll be checking comments on such an old entry, but I did want to make this suggestion.

Leave a Reply