Against the Figurative Use of the Word Literally

literally Lyra literally sitting

This was drawn by Elder-Misanthrope

Recently Dictionary.com went to the effort to defend figurative use of the word “literally” on their Hot Word blog. Before we get into the details, just a quick reminder so you’re up to speed:

literally
- adj. What actually happened.Synonyms: Actually. Antonyms: figuratively, metaphorically. Usage: I was literally rolling on the floor laughing.

This comic from the Oatmeal explains the controversy nicely.

literally pissed myself the Oatmeal

See the full comic on The Oatmeal

 

So you see, many people are only pretending to “literally piss our selves laughing” while those of us who’ve actually pissed ourselves, sadly, have no way to express our mirth.

Inigo Montoya Princess Bride Gif I do not think it means what you think it means

OK, now that everyone is clear what we’re discussing with what is literally my biggest pet peeve, back to the Hot Word. This thoroughly awful post really calls into question the authority behind Dictionary.com’s blog, and not only because it is wrong. Let’s take it point by point.

The article begins by pointing out that the word “literally” has only been around with its current definition since 1689 (long enough for me), and that a mere two hundred years later notable fellows like Chaz Dickens were using it improperly. Fair enough. But just because a smart guy misuses a word doesn’t mean we all should.

The article goes on to say,

More recently, the word definitely has begun fluctuating in meaning. Jezebel published an article in June entitled, ‘Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.’

 

It’s utterly perplexing to me that the author of this post fails to recognize that the Jezebel writer is using the time-honored tradition of sarcasm. The word “definitely” still means what it always meant, the Jezebel writer is just expecting her audience to be a little more sophisticated than the readers of, say, Dictionary.com.

fire animated gif

“Now seems like a good time to have a friendly grammar debate.”

But sure, I’ll grant you that words sometimes shift meaning over time. A better example would be the words “flammable” and “inflammable,” which pretty much mean the same thing (and the opposite), because, while the root of “inflammable” is “inflame,” it sounds a little like the “in” at the front is the prefix meaning “not.” So that makes sense. When it comes to things that will literally set you on fire, we want our warning labels to be clear.

Words adapt; they change meaning over time. But the Dictionary.com article goes on to state that the reason we complain about the misuse of “literally” is because we were taught the meaning in school, so it gives even the most illiterate turds among us a chance to feel like grammar snobs for a day:

The contradiction of literally is easy to explain to a large audience, easier than why dictionary editors hem and haw over the use of the word “etc.” or how adverbial phrases are punctuated. This type of simplistic gripe satisfies the need to feel smarter than someone else without thinking too deeply about how language operates.
Um, no.
But, hey, way to give the old “fuck you” to the readers of your site.
XKCD on literally

Every post I write is just an excuse to share an XKCD comic

How about some real talk on “how language operates.” Language changes because words become more or less useful. We didn’t need the phrase “hanging chad” until Americans started screwing up our ballot sheets, and now it’s in the dictionary. Conversely, what used to be a trolley is, these days, a fancy bus. It makes sense that the word has evolved in meaning because very few cities still have local train systems. As the word became less useful, the traditional meaning fell out of favor. But what do we call a fancy bus that is styled like a train car? “Trolley” seems perfectly reasonable.
trolley bus is now a trolley

Old school trolleys are spinning in their graves at this demon-bastard trackless monstrosity. Or they would be, if they had wheels to spin.

So, as a word becomes less useful, its definition changes. But is that the case with literally? Take this example: “I hate your momma so much I literally danced on her grave.” Now, if I really did twerk on your momma’s grave, how can I let you know that I mean I really and truly did this, besides providing photographic evidence? Right now the most effective way to convey this in the English language is to add the word “literally.” To allow the word to mean “figuratively” is to take meaning away from the English language. Unlike the trolley, we still need this word to impart meaning, because how otherwise can I express how much I hate your momma?
Worse, because “figuratively” means the exact opposite of “literally,” to misuse it in this way makes the word entirely useless. Why would you bother even adding the word to a sentence, if the thing you’re describing didn’t actually happen? There’s no reason, it’s just an extra, redundant word. Thus when it is misused, it’s like the person is stomping on the word over and over, trying to (figuratively) stomp out the sad little embers of its life. And for those of us who like having literally in our lexicon, it’s painful to see you bitch slapping it over and over.

The article concludes,

I’d argue that when juxtaposed with seemingly outrageous but accurate statements, the original meaning becomes more effective exactly because it can also mean “figuratively,” and a listener must pause to determine which meaning the speaker intends.
Naturally, why give a word one meaning, when we can let it mean its opposite too? We’ve returned to second grade, when every day is Opposite day! Please know, Dictionary.com, that when I say the article you’ve written is a weak attempt to defend your own ignorance, what I really mean is it’s a strong attempt to defend your brilliance. I’m sure that doesn’t muddle my meaning at all.

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  • Topher Gadd

    I’m in full agreement. If words can mean whatever we want them to mean, then why would anyone need Dictionary.com anyway?

  • JacobAziza

    Dance four old computer bogus elect yams too and give glue lollipop. Lion I big up screen double, when tree three ducking panel – why picture key says future broken. ; dictionary review carriage facing bold reddish sippet.

    I’m sure you understand what I mean – afterall, words are even more meaningful and useful if we decide they can mean whatever we feel like.

  • http://futureisfiction.com/blog daretoeatapeach

    Phew! For a second there I was worried you developed a touch of the ole’ schizophrenia.

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  • Henry_Smith

    Quite a few English words have opposite meanings, but using ‘literally’ in a figurative (hyperbolic) sense is not giving it its opposite meaning. (I think words that have one meaning that is the opposite of another are called “Janus words”.

  • http://literallystraighthair.tumblr.com/ Caio Ranieri

    Okay, if I say “my head exploded”, is the meaning of any word here the opposite of its actual meaning?

    Of course no. All the words retain their actual meanings, yet you won’t think for a second my head actually exploded. If I say “my head literally exploded” will you suddenly get confused with what I mean and really believe my brains are splattered all over the walls?

    Of course will not, and just like in the first sentence, every word retain its meaning, including literally. Literally still means literally. What happens is that I am using a hyperbole, and the use of literally makes it stronger.

    It does not make the word useless, because there is a reason for it to be there. It is not a redundant word because both sentences are clearly different. One has much more impact than the other.

  • http://literallystraighthair.tumblr.com/ Caio Ranieri

    The meaning of a word is defined by how people use it, but there must be some sort of agreement. If one person suddenly starts using “green” when they mean “blue”, then obviously they are using the word improperly. However, if for whatever reason the majority of English speakers decide to use the word “green” for the color blue, then it becomes the actual meaning of the word.

    A dictionary is a list of word meanings according to how people use it, so we need them to know how people are using words.

  • http://futureisfiction.com/blog daretoeatapeach

    I don’t see how adding literally would make the hyperbole stronger. If literally still retains the same meaning, it should mean not a hyperbole but that your head actually exploded. If your head didn’t explode, what does the word literally mean in this context? I can parse no meaning from the word at all, because your head didn’t literally explode. So in that context it is either redundant or incorrect.

  • http://futureisfiction.com/blog daretoeatapeach

    To me, this comment contradicts your previous comment. I agree with you though, if we all agree that green is blue then that’s what the word now means. Which is precisely why it is so irksome when folks use literally in a figurative sense, because there is then a danger that the word will lose its meaning as “actually happened”. As it is now, it’s a useful word. Figuratively used the word doesn’t have any useful meaning, so misusing it is basically taking it out of the language.

    PS thanks for taking the time to comment—I welcome debate! ????

  • http://literallystraighthair.tumblr.com/ Caio Ranieri

    It does not change its meaning because the sentence as whole is in the figurative sense. Did the meaning of “exploded” change in the original sentence? Of course not. I really am saying my head did explode, even though it didn’t. So, if “exploded” didn’t change meaning in the original sentence, the in the second one “literally” didn’t change meaning either. There is no special clause in the English language saying that “literally” removes the figurativeness of any sentence it’s in.

    I mean, if I can use “exploded” in a figurative sense, I don’t see why shouldn’t I be allowed to use “literally” in a figurative sense.

    Let me try a different example, one that does not include “literally” in it: “My head exploded. It really exploded, don’t you see? There are brains splattered all over the walls.”

    You will immediately know that I am not being serious if I say that, and you won’t even think I am really trying to convince you my head exploded. Now, did any of the words change meaning? Well, you know the answer.

    What happens is completely outside the sentences. It is context. You know my head didn’t explode because you have evidence it didn’t. Namely, the fact that I am able to talk to you.

    Now, you wanna know how “literally” makes the hyperbole stronger? Okay, I’ll use another exploding head example, but now in a different context. To me, the difference between “my head exploded” and “my head literally exploded” is the same as the difference between “my head hurts” and “my head is about to explode”.

  • http://literallystraighthair.tumblr.com/ Caio Ranieri

    I would like you to point exactly where the contradiction is. I honestly don’t see it.

    Anyway, I’ll try to clarify that comment a little. Here I was addressing the “words can mean whatever we want them to” thing. Of course they do, that is how language works. The people who speak it define the meaning of words. But one person alone can not just suddenly decide what a word means. You need a group of people using the same word to mean the same thing, otherwise communication is impossible.

    Now, I’ll try a more extreme example: Imagine a group of, say, only ten people decide that “train” refers to the fruit “banana”, and uses it this way whenever they are talking with each other. (Whenever they are taking to an outsider, they just use “train” as train.)

    You can’t say they are using “train” wrong, because they agree with each other that “train” means “banana”, and when they are talking among themselves, that is the correct usage of the word. Words mean what we want them to.

    Now let’s get back to “literally” (which doesn’t really change in meaning, but in usage). The objective of language is to communicate. If I say something and you don’t understand what I am saying, then I am failing to use language properly. If I use “literally” in a figurative sense, there is no way you’ll get confused with what I am saying (unless the sentence as whole is confusing). You will know what I mean (that is how you can tell I’m using it “wrong”). Communication will be successfully accomplished.

    If I am communicating properly, then I am using language properly.

    Also, “literally” is not being taken out of the English language as you claim. Both usages of the word can, and will, coexist. Nothing is going to happen with the literal use of literally, and if it does, we’ll all be long gone.

    I have a few links for you:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai_VHZq_7eU
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100143038/sadly-jamie-redknapp-is-literally-correct/
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100230902/no-we-havent-literally-killed-the-english-language-or-metaphorically-killed-it-stand-down-semantics-nerds/

    Please watch the video and read both articles (you can actually skip the first one, but I think you should read because the second one refers back to it).

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