Literally My Last Blog Entry On The Word "Literally"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Yesterday, I Tweeted this:

Which caused many to label me a “prescriptivist,” informing me that I can be a fussy stick-in-the-mud while they will rejoice in the way language evolves.
One wonders how they’ll respond when, via the exact same mechanisms, the OED defines “gay” as “stupid” and “embarrassing.”
The truth is, I’m not a member of your language gang wars.  On the whole, I think it’s fascinating and wonderful how language is a living entity, not really controlled by any single person, this sort of floating, mutating mass of information hovering over all of us.  The words “twerking” and “photobomb,” yes, should appear in dictionaries.  Nor am I the sort of person who grits his teeth when someone says “should of,” as though it’s blatantly incorrect it’s one of those language shifts that simply happens.  I think it makes you look dim at this point in time, and encourage you heartily to use language that makes you look smarter, but I’d wager in a century or two it’ll be a widely-accepted thing.
If you truly believe that language should never evolve, then why aren’t you speaking Chaucerian English?  No.  What you’re doing, as Stephen Fry correctly pointed out, is taking the language you were made comfortable by and attempting to freeze it in time.  And as I correctly pointed out in one of my first-ever entries, The Stupid Always Win; you literally cannot fight the evolution if enough people start using it their way.  Language is determined by mass usage, not some book or college course, and if you don’t find that fascinating then I don’t know what you do find fascinating.
However.
Just because language does evolve doesn’t always mean it’s correct to evolve.
As I said in my essay previously, “This is, incidentally, why the PC obsession with language is a complete balls-up. It doesn’t matter whether you call someone a ‘Negro’ or an ‘African-American’ or a ‘people of color’ – if enough redneck hicks stand on the corner sneering, “Hey! Person’a Coler! Go backter Africa where y’came from!” the term will become a slur no matter how well-intentioned it is. Many of the terms we use to insult women today – like ‘whore,’ for example – started out as referring to high-bred and respectable ladies, and slid. Language works back-to-front, not front-to-back.”
(I was wrong about “whore,” incidentally.  It started out as “lover.”  Still, my point remains.)
And in the case of “literally,” it is literally the only convenient word to mean “this factually happened.”  Yes, even such greats as Mark Twain misused it on occasion.  Yes, it’s been sliding since the very day it was introduced.  Yet the reason I object to the term being used is not because I am a language snob, but because I am a language snob.  I object not because I don’t believe language should change, but because without literally we’re bereft of a common word that does the same job, and are instead reduced to saying stupid things like, “No, I mean literally literally.”
Getting rid of literally in the exclusive sense of “literal” is like getting rid of peanut butter.  Oh, maybe you can find almond butter somewhere on in the dusty back shelves of your grocery store, but it’s inconvenient to find and it doesn’t taste quite the same.
As such, I reject the paradigm that loving language means loving all of language’s shifts.  I do not have to rubber-stamp every evolution.  Some of those changes make for more awkward vagueness, and to those changes, I am opposed.  Some of them, like the usage of “gay” to mean “dumb,” draw ugly parallels, and to them I am opposed.
Others have also argued that merely being defined in the OED doesn’t mean anything.  I argue it does.  If I tell you, “I am afraid of the dog,” and by “dog” I mean “nuclear holocaust,” then when people misunderstand me you’ll tell me that really, it’s my fault.  And it is.  But if I were to point you to a dictionary and show you that indeed, a common alternate meaning of “dog” was “nuclear holocaust,” you’d feel as though you were at fault for being sufficiently uneducated.  (You might also think me pretentious for using such arcane terminology, and you might be correct.  But you wouldn’t call me wrong.)
Being used commonly enough to make it into the OED is, in fact, a stamp of legitimacy.  I’m not saying that the OED should not so stamp it; the OED’s job is to describe the language, not define it.  But it’s like watching George W. Bush elected twice; I can agree that this should happen at the same time I lament it.
And lastly, some were distressed by the fact that I will think less of you if you use it in this new and more-authorized fashion.  They didn’t like the judgment.  I’ll remind them that they’re free to judge me in turn for being snobby or callous or thoughtless; in fact, every time I post, I am in fact encouraging you to pass judgment on me one way or another.  That’s pretty much what public writing is.  If I post a poorly-thought-out entry and you think, “Gee, he really should have thought twice before posting such misogynistic drivel,” I’d argue you should think less of me for presenting myself poorly.  Likewise, I’ll think a little less of you should you use the language in a way I think isn’t thoughtful.
If this distresses you, I am a pudgy balding depressive neurotic man with attention issues, and I will remind you that my opinion is eminently dismissable.  I’ll also remind you that a few hours with a Google search could probably find numerous examples where I myself have used the term “literally” in a way I find abhorrent.
Yes.  I do think less of myself for lapsing on those occasions.   Yet somehow I live.  “Thinking less” is not “dismissing entirely,” and we can remain friends.  You’ll just bug me whenever you do that.  But that is literally what friends do.

2 Comments

  1. Katherine
    Oct 31, 2013

    My issue is not that the word’s meaning is changing, but rather that it no longer has any meaning at all. Figuratively is the opposite of literally, so saying that they’re the same now is like saying we’re going to use the same word for “right” and “wrong” now, and we’ll have lots of synonyms for right, but none for wrong, so there is no way for you to easily communicate which one you mean.

  2. tess
    Nov 1, 2013

    My thing about this change in definition is that it’s entirely unnecessary. We already have the tools in language to describe this different use of the word “literally”. They’re called “irony” and “hyperbole”.
    If I use the word “literally” in an ironic manner, it doesn’t change the meaning of the word.
    If I use the word “literally” as hyperbole, it doesn’t change the meaning of the word.
    Do we really, as a population, need to be told that when someone says “Oh my god, I literally fell down dead!” and they’re quite obviously still alive, speaking to us, that they were exaggerating for effect? I certainly don’t. Because I understand language.
    But, apparently, all the other mechanisms of english are being ignored, and forgotten about. This ignorance has reached the point that not even those who write the dictionaries are literate enough to be aware of sarcasm or hyperbole. On top of that, they feel the need to perpetuate this illiteracy by marring the definitions of words with their sarcastic and exaggerated intents.
    It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. I’m mournful of the loss of these subtleties, and pity those who will grow up without them.

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