It’s literally war

7 May

Mark Twain used it. Thackeray, Hardy and Maupassant too. “Literally” in the non-literal sense, that is; “literally”  meaning “metaphorically”. And they’re not the only ones: millions of English-speakers do it all the time in conversation and correspondence. It’s been used that way for years.

That doesn’t stop it being one of the most explosive and frequently written-about topics in English usage, of course. The latest entry in a long list is Professor Ben Yagoda’s thorough and perceptive breakdown of the arguments for and against at Lingua Franca. But his conclusion, “to the literally users, to the literally haters and the literally defenders” is quite a downbeat one: “You’re all wrong.”

If he’s right, that leads to the rather depressing conclusion that the word no longer means anything at all. No editor likes to think that. In such cases, we resort to the dictionary, for the reassurance that words can still be found and a clear definition can still be made.

But doing that proves slightly unusual in this case. Of course, you can find the word under “L” and an explanation of its conventional meaning. But if you want the customary seven- or eight-word encapsulation of its new, non-literal sense, you have to look quite hard.

Buzzfeed’s splendidly excitable contribution to the debate some weeks ago (“This is figuratively the worst thing ever!”) trawled through several definitions in modern online dictionaries. One was Oxford, which chooses not to define the new meaning directly,

(adverb) in a literal manner or sense; exactly: ‘the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout’ …

informal used for emphasis while not being literally true: ‘I have received literally thousands of letters’

and then immediately issues a usage note:

In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in ‘they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground’. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects.

Supplementing Buzzfeed’s work with a quick hunt through the Tribune’s bookshelves, I found that our house dictionary – Collins – is very similar, again promulgating a second meaning without directly defining it,

(adv) 1 In a literal manner 2 (intensifier): There were literally thousands of people

and then, again, immediately breaking off for an explanation:

The use of literally as an intensifier is common, esp in informal contexts. In some cases it provides emphasis without adding to the meaning: ‘the house was literally only five minutes away’. Often, however, its use results in absurdity: ‘the news was literally an eye opener to me’.

Chambers’s format allows it to avoid the issue of defining an adverb formed from an adjective, so it only offers a typically wry aside:

—(adv) literally (often used by no means literally)

The bravest effort comes from Merriam-Webster Online, which bites the bullet and writes two direct definitions:

1: in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>

2: in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

But what they’re all trying to avoid, I think – even MW, with its judicious choice of synonyms – is following the situation to its reductivist conclusion and publishing a definition that reads like this:

(adv) 1 Not figuratively or metaphorically 2 figuratively or metaphorically

Strangely, though, I suspect that’s exactly what the extreme wings of both the prescriptivist and descriptivist movements would rather like them to do, for very different reasons.

And that’s because “literally” is a battleground – a bridgehead vital to the ambitions of both sides in the language wars. Ultra-descriptivists of a deconstructionist persuasion, who seek out ambiguity and paradox for validation, would relish that matter-antimatter collision of definitions, seeing in “literally” a singularity so glorious as to suck in and consume at a gulp Saussure’s ideas of language as a lofty and perfect structure.

And for sticklers exasperated by decades of uncritical, anything-goes inclusiveness, it’s the best and clearest chance of trapping descriptivism in the mistake they feel it was always bound to make. Years of defining words merely by popular usage and nothing else, they believe, has now led to an absurdity so manifest that no amount of corpus data can justify it. And if “literally” is a mistake, then other things might be too: and the long and forced retreat from the prescriptivist certainties of the early 20th century might be at an end.

As for me, to use the meek formulation of the modern professional prescriptivist, I “prefer” the traditional meaning. But all bets are off when you’re on the phone in extremis to the newsdesk, of course:  “We’ll literally be the last people on earth to know about this if you don’t file something soon.”

3 Responses to “It’s literally war”

  1. Aaron Binns May 8, 2013 at 2:59 am #

    Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good?


  1. Unsafe structure | Ten minutes past deadline - July 1, 2013

    […] a wider and more popular understanding, but a delight in confusion, a restless relish for change. When “literally” is demonstrated also to mean its paradoxical opposite, the achievement, as always, seems an uncomfortably deconstructionist one: ambiguity has been […]

  2. It’s literally going to die | Ten minutes past deadline - August 13, 2013

    […] No, I mean it! Google has, as almost everyone on Twitter has seen fit to observe, included the non-literal definition of “literally” in its online […]

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