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:
- - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.