Tips from the Editor – We Are Literally Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

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By Kelly Laycock

As I often do when contemplating the beginning of a new blogpost, I looked to The Oatmeal for some inspiring words of wisdom. They are literally the best medicine for the Monday blues.

If you are one of the few who question (or possibly abhor) my usage of the word literally in the previous sentence, then prepare yourself for some major irritation. I just learned that we’ve been using the word incorrectly for, like, ever.

Well, not literally. In fact, only recently. To many of us, literally means free from exaggeration or embellishment, actually. It is usually contrasted with the word figuratively, as in a figure of speech. He’s a sailor who knows his ropes, literally and figuratively. But recently, the dictionary gods have decided to play a mean little trick on us. Literally can now also be used to mean figuratively.

Dana Coleman of the Salon website says this:

Thanks in part to the overuse of “literally,” Merriam-Webster says the word can now mean its exact opposite. Huh? Webster’s first definition of literally is, “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” Its second definition is, “in effect; virtually.” In addressing this seeming contradiction, its authors comment:

“Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposition of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

So it’s okay to use literally to mean figuratively as long as you really, really, really need to do so? Hmph.

The Guardian took their exasperation a little further:

It’s happened. Literally the most misused word in the language has officially changed definition….”Literally”, you see, in its development from knock-kneed, single-purpose utterance, to swan-like dual-purpose term, has reached that awkward stage. It is neither one nor the other, and it can’t do anything right.

It does seem rather, I dunno, capricious. Just because some people couldn’t get the hang of using a simple term correctly, doesn’t seem reason enough to change the rules completely. What about the integrity of the English language?

Caroline Chin from BooksonFirst.com was flabbergasted when she heard someone on public radio say, “Hearing that literally struck terror in my heart.” She tried to think of what to use instead, but soon realized she couldn’t:

No one says, “Hearing that figuratively struck terror in my heart.” No, he would say, “Hearing that struck terror in my heart.” No “literally” and no “figuratively,” because “struck terror in my heart” is already a figure of speech. It suddenly struck me (figuratively): “Literally” is being used as emphasis. It really, really, really did strike terror in my heart — no ifs, ands or buts about it….And, I thought, welcome to the 21st century, where language along with civil society has been going to hell in a handbasket for over twenty centuries, while those advocates of living language say, “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

Being a former student of linguistics, I am an advocate of living language (meaning that the only constant you can rely on with language is that it is going to change and develop with each new generation or group of speakers) but I can’t quite “fuhgeddaboudit.” I prefer descriptivism (observing and describing actual language use) to prescriptivism (setting out hard-and-fast rules for how the language ought to be), but I am not in favor of lazy language usage that causes confusion for its speakers. Both the term literally and its root, literal, seemed quite obvious and useful to me. Honest, even. And figures of speech seemed to work smoothly on their own, helping speakers express their ideas through metaphor. What possible purpose could there be for changing the meaning of a fully functioning word to its exact opposite?

There isn’t one. The word has not taken on a better, more effective use for communication; it’s just a fad. A trend. A slang usage. That in itself is not surprising. Language is always being used and changed for fun. What is surprising is that the dictionaries and the respected institutions behind them, decided to jump on that bandwagon. Perhaps the about-face of the word literally is an indicator of lowered standards and expectations in academics, or perhaps it reflects the increased consumerism and use of shock-value marketing in western society. Everything has to be bigger and better, more bang for your buck. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” is no longer strong enough to describe a downpour. No! Instead, we need to hyperbolize an already hyperbolic figure of speech and say, “It’s literally raining cats and dogs out there!”

And while my gut tells me to argue, my dictionary says, Don’t bother. It’s perfectly acceptable to say that cats and dogs are literally falling from the sky.

I guess all I can do is blame it on climate change.

One thought on “Tips from the Editor – We Are Literally Going to Hell in a Hand Basket

    ken11fox said:
    July 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Great post! I especially like the ending. But do you mean the climate is literally changing? I hope not, but after reading the book on Toxic Torts I’m not so sure. Let’s say the climate is linguisticly changing, or the linguistic climate is changing. There, that’s far less scary, isn’t it? Most of the time when I hear folks use the word “literally” the effective meaning is “effectively” (or is the literal meaning “effectively?) – it’s raining so hard the effect is as if it were raining cats and dogs. I agree that “figuratively” is wrong because no one would ever use that word unless they are talking about language. There’s a wonderful moment on Frasier when a caller tells the psychiatrist that is wife is “literally hanging around the house.” In his best Ivy-League tones, Frasier informs him that she wouldn’t be doing that unless she was a bat – the caller expresses annoyance at over-educated college boys correcting his grammar and hangs up. Frasier groans. The next line should have been, “For the record, I did NOT correct the caller’s grammar, I corrected his DICTION.”

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