Thursday, January 30, 2014

Does "Literally" Really Mean What You Think It Does?

In an online conversation yesterday, there was confusion about what the definition of "literally" is, how people "misuse" the word and the purity of the English language. Twitter is no place for an extended conversation, so I'm taking it here.

While people are generally aware of the literal meaning of "literally" which would be something that actually happened ("The Great Chicago Fire literally destroyed most of the city"), the word can also be used just to emphasize something, even if that something isn't to be taken in a literal sense ("The Minnesota Twins were literally slaughtered by the Yankees last night"). Many people object to this second use - the objections have become so popular that you can buy t-shirts that say "Misuse of literally makes me figuratively insane". XKCD has chipped in, as has The Oatmeal to support this narrow interpretation.

That's all fine and nice, but it is wrong. Dictionaries say so (Merriam-Webster, Free-Online Dictionary and The Cambridge Dictionary Online). Remember that dictionaries are "descriptive", not "prescriptive" - they describe how people use a word and NOT how they should be using it.

While this "new" use of literally seems to be a modern trend, the "figurative" reading has been used by notable authors for quite some time. In "The Great Gatsby", F. Scott Fitzgerald stated "He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room." 50 years or so before that, Louis May Alcott in "Little Women" wrote, "The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions..." and numerous other examples exist too.

"Literally" is an example of an auto-antonym, a word that has two contradictory meanings. There are plenty of other examples in the Wikipedia article. (My personal favorite is "shopping". Back in the '80s, the Pet Shop Boys had a minor hit song called "Shopping". Most people thought it was about buying stuff, but the true meaning was quite the opposite. It was about Margaret Thatcher shopping around different parts of the British government to sell off.) This is no different that particle-wave duality or the Twins Paradox, ideas that mostly scientists are quite comfortable with. Why are there the issues with contradictory meanings embedded in a single word?

Purist may still insist on their strict interpretation, but languages will never stand for that. Languages are living, breathing entities that exist for the purpose of communication. As long as the communication is clear, the language is fine and little else matters. The irony is the word "purist" is hardly an English word. It is of French origin, added to the English language after the Norman invasion and displacing the Old English in use at the time. Further irony is provided by the Tweets that were used to have this discussion. All of them began with the @ sign, such as @jaspevacek (my account on Twitter). "Pure" English would never stand for such usage, and yet it is essential for communication on Twitter. The same is true of the hashtag, #, which has even jumped into spoken English. As I said earlier, languages are not a ritual for purity but a tool for communication. "@", "#", LOL and OMG all let communication occur and therefore are part of a language. That the meanings change over time is inherent in a human language. That's how we've developed the languages that we have today and that people like. We're not speaking Old English or even proto-English, but Modern English. You can't shut off the development mechanism just because you've arrived on the scene and like things the way they are. Things will continue to change. It's all part of the tapestry of time.

Lastly, all of the above only applies to the adverb "literally". The adjective "literal" is still limited to the meaning that most people think of. Only time will tell if it picks up additional meanings.

Previous Years
January 30, 2013 - Clamshell Packaging Takes a Knock

January 30, 2012 - 3-D Printing, Medical Organs and Piracy

January 30, 2009 - Boron Boride

January 30, 2009 - Buckytubes for All!!

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