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Word Nerd: This is Literally the Only Blog About the Word “Literally” You Will Ever Need to Read

4 years ago

Note: A post on this topic was published before on the old Abaddon blogspot blog, although this has been rewritten from scratch and substantially updated. Apologies if you’re retreading old ground!

xkcd

So. The big one. Phew.

I have a bit of a soft spot for literally, partly because without this word you wouldn’t be reading this blog. I posted, way back in November 2013, about this very subject and literally everyone shat their pants. According to our analytics, it was the most-visited post on the Abaddon blog ever that wasn’t about publishing opportunities or free downloads,* and I got dragged into any number of arguments on Facebook, Twitter and the tea point at work, with people who seemed determined that if they were just dogged enough, I’d suddenly realise I’d made a mistake, or admit that I was lying.

So anyway, that was when it occurred to me that some sort of column on usage, particularly hunting down dogmatic pedantry, gutting it like a fish and leaving it steaming and exposed in the harsh light of the internet, might be something people would like.† You’re welcome, internet.

So let’s do this.

This is Literally the Problem People Have With “Literally”

So in case you’ve literally been living under a rock your entire life (or, let’s be fair, living sealed up in a rock, under a rock, itself covered in a rockslide, in the middle of the Great Stony Desert in Australia), the deal is this: literally, as every schoolchild knows, means “exactly true” or “non-figuratively,” so saying “that box is literally going to explode in a minute, so run away,” is by way of saying it’s definitely going to explode and you’re not just mucking about. Except that people also use it when they are being figurative, saying for example, “my father is literally going to explode when he sees the scratch on his car,” in which case you can be confident the speaker’s father is unlikely to detonate. And lots of people get cross about that, and post snarky, sarcastic things on the internet about how dumb other people are.

The ongoing storm was revived in August 2013, when Fiona MacPherson, senior editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, explained on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast show that the popular (if despised) sense of the word would be introduced to the OED,‡ and literally everyone started shouting about how “you can’t just change words in the dictionary because people get things wrong.”**

You’re Literally Wrong About the Second Meaning

The general protest is something along the lines of “But it means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean! They’re using literally to mean figuratively!”

And a moment’s thought will reveal that to literally be a load of old cobblers. Ask yourself: who exactly tells you, mid-metaphor, that it’s a metaphor? Like, “My father’s going to explode; actually, he’s not going to explode – he’s quite well. I just thought I should reassure you, in case you were worried.” I’ll tell you: literally no-one ever. That’s not how figures of speech work. People who make this assumption are being lazy; they’re thinking, “literally means non-figuratively... this guy’s using it in a figurative statement... he must have got it wrong and thinks it means figuratively! What a doofus!” and not taking the fraction of a second it would take to realise how dumb that reasoning sounds. It’s wilfully, not to say snobbishly, ignorant.

Don’t believe me? Here’s that new Oxford definition:

  • 1.1 informal Used for emphasis while not being literally true: I have received literally thousands of letters

Literally serves as what’s called an intensifier, a word that adds emphasis without otherwise changing the sense of the original. If I say, “my last blog on the ‘singular they got literally hundreds of hits in just a few hours,” I can assure you I’m not lying, but that’s not why I’m using the word literally; I’m just playing with that sense to drive home how big a deal it is to get that degree of response.

Using it with a figurative statement is extending that, being playful with the language. Like, “No, really, my dad’s actually going to explode right here in front of me, showering me with bone fragments and viscera! Haha, it’s funny because I’m asserting an obvious untruth for effect!” Far from contradicting the primary sense, it actually depends on it, and we use, for example, actually and really the same way (without any complaint, oddly).

And – and regular readers of this column will find this familiar – it’s not even all that modern! Dryden used it as an intensifier of a true statement in 1687 (his “daily bread is litt’rally implor’d”), as did Pope in 1708 (“Euery day with me is literally another yesterday). The first recorded use with a metaphor is in Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague, way back in 1769: “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 it didn’t end there. Jane Austen was “literally rocked in bed” in a stormy night; Mark Twain was “literally rolling in wealth,” and Louisa May Alcott’s land “literally flowed with milk and honey.” Dickens “literally feasted his eyes,” and in 1863, the actress Fanny Kemble “literally coined money.” This is an old, respected usage.

Basically, every schoolchild knows dick. That’s why they’re at school, obvs. And unfortunately, while they’re there, they’re learning formal Standard English (which is a useful thing to learn, of course, in moderation and in context), which of course means they’re in the grip of our old friends, the prescriptive grammarians. Hell, this one’s not even eighteenth century; the first condemnations of the practice appear just over a hundred years ago, such as in American journalist and editorialist Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right in 1909: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”§ Even in terms of the modern prescriptive grammar rules I love to pick apart, this one’s frankly a Johnny-come-lately.

...And You’re Literally Wrong About the Primary Meaning (Sorry)

And of course, the “primary” meaning isn’t the original sense. Literally first meant “letter by letter.” It referred to actual written text, as in, “This is a literal copy of the manuscript,” or “I’ve written down literally what he said.”

And I’m not done. The sense you think of as the “correct” sense of the word exists because of the way most of us learn language, picking it up from hearing other people use words and inferring their meaning from context. People heard the word in use and interpreted literally to mean “exactly, truthfully,” and a new sense – one that would eventually totally eclipse the original – was born. Which is great! That’s how language evolves and changes. But it presents a terrible, wonderful irony.

Because while the pedants trying to shoot down the newer (ie. merely 250-year-old) usage generally declaim along the lines of, “it’s wrong to allow the language to be changed just because people get things wrong,” the fact is that’s exactly how the older, “correct” use of the word came about. The newer, more populist sense is a deliberate, playful distortion; the older sense favoured by the authorities is artless error become fact.

And that’s literally that.

Cheers,

David

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.

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*Because of course.

†Or hate with a seething passion that keeps dragging them back to the blog to stare at the face of the enemy, which is pretty much the same thing.

‡Strictly speaking, the usage had been in there since 1903: “Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.” The change in 2013 was to call it “informal” rather than “improper.” World shaking.

**Which is ridiculous on the face of it. Language changes over time; I have a very good Old English dictionary at home, but I wouldn’t use it for the  crossword.

§So, you know, his argument is basically that he doesn’t like it.