Monday, 19 March 2012

'Literally' bored to death

For the past 10 years or more Private eye magazine has included a column called "colmansballs".  This column focuses on sports stars' linguistic gaffes, such as Gazza's "I never make predictions, and I never will." Almost every week they feature a celeb allegedly misusing the word "literally".  For example:

'That cross to Rooney was literally on a plate.'

We (the educated) are supposed to laugh knowingly at this foolish and quite obviously ridiculous statement.  The guardian has a piece on this phenomena and its interesting to see how many people take issue with this usage.  People hate it so much there is even a blog dedicated to it.  Language mavens are everywhere (but this is a subject for another day).  However, I can't help thinking the "idiots" misusing the word will have the last laugh, for the reasons listed below:

1. All languages change.  This is a fact. However much you dislike new words and phrases, if they become popular, you can do nothing to stop their eventual rise to prominence.  Look at the history of language mavenism and you will see it littered with the corpses of  prescriptivists bemoaning their own personal bugbears.  Fewer not less! Irregardless isn't a word! Double negatives make positives! Don't drop aitches (except in Aitch)! etc etc.  If we look further back in history the complaints of educated people seem a bit silly to us.  Swift, for example, in 1712 complained about the use of words like "Bully, Banter and mob" and also took offence at the pronunciation of past tense verbs like "disturbed" without pronouncing the final E, that is disturbEd (3 syllables, not two):
What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain

2. People decrying the use of 'literally' usually make the point that what the person is really trying to say is 'figuratively' which has the opposite meaning to literally.  They worry that a perfectly good word is going to waste when another is being misused, and it's easy to see their point here.  However, words are misused all the time and nobody seems to mind.  When we are cold we might say we are 'freezing', which is not true and what's more the word 'cold' seems perfectly suitable to describing cold.  Yet we continue to 'freeze and to 'boil' and to 'starve' and be 'famished' and no one seems to mind.  Still, these are not the complete opposites of the words they describe.  Contranyms, on the other hand, are.  Words such as overlook, which may mean to monitor something, or to purposely not see it, or 'dust' which means 'apply dust' or 'remove dust' and no one seems confused.  So the argument that it is confusing is pretty thin.  If someone says that they "literally died!" you'd have to be pretty dim to be confused.

3. But what about the idea that since 'figuratively' exists we should use that.  Unfortunately (for some), language can't be legislated.   You can try, as with L'Académie française but you'll likely fail.  The point I'm making here is that people don't use figuratively, or at least not much.  Think back to the last time you heard someone say "I figuratively died!" or "Rooney's pass was figuratively on a plate!"  Search a corpus, you'll find it's not all that common.  Literally is also rarely used to mean "as a fact" but almost always to add emphasis.  Again, look at a corpus and you'll see examples like:

"It's literally free information"
"the public have sent me literally hundreds of cards"
"it was literally seconds"

These examples would not be that much worse of with literally removed. It only seems to be working as an intensifier of sorts. 

4. The best case for its use is that it has been used in this way for hundreds of years by various well respected writers.  Dictionaries generally list, as one of the word's meanings "Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling". This is because many dictionaries now focus on how language is used (descriptive) not how some people would like it to be used (prescriptive). 

In effect, literally is a linguistic shibboleth used by snobs and mavens to sort the wheat (themselves) from the chaff, -(chavy people, like footballers).  It's the same snobbery which is attached to much criticism of other people's language use, or accent, or not knowing which fork to use in a restaurant.  It's a chance for us to legitimately look down on and laugh at other people, -and there's nothing folk like more than that.


  1. Came across this one belatedly via your 'Humble Pie' posting. I have to say I do have an issue with this usage without feeling a need to come out in support of prescriptivism to justify it. The entire point of the usage of literally, for communicative purposes when not used as 'figuratively/metaphorically' (interestingly Just The Word has the latter contrasted with 'literally' more often than 'figuratively' is) seems to me to emphasise that it's not just for intensification or hyperbole, but to state that the events which the speaker or writer's audience might take to be hyperbole are, in fact, literally true. It's the lack of a substitute for this word in this context, which can make it confusing when used as its own opposite. Of course, as in the 'literally died' example, there are contexts where this is not confusing. However, take an example such as "There was more than victory at stake. He was literally taking his life in his hands." Surely the word becomes redundant if you can't tell without more contextual details whether the user is implying an actual risk to continued physical existence or wishing to use hyperbole. The very example of Swift in 1712 shows that as languages change, it's inevitable that discussion and debate over whether new usages are good from either viewpoints of communicative usefulness or aesthetic merit are a part of that change. As the corpses of prescriptivists litter these debates, so do the corpses of words which gained a limited usage, but never sustained or wider currency. Lexicographers deciding on whether usages are sufficiently wide-ranging and likely to be sustained for inclusion in dictionaries etc is surely an example of this at an early stage. None of this denies its use as a linguistic shibboleth, but its facile to think a denunciation of prescriptivism should discourage discussion of how we consider it best to use a given word, as long as we recognize that discussing these changes rather than having the final word on them is all we can do individually.

    1. thanks for your comments! I'm all for discussion. However, it seems to me that most of what passes for 'discussion' is one side airily denouncing the usage of the other side as 'wrong' and 'illogical'. This tends to continue until the position becomes untenable as with words like 'decimate'. Is it bad that we lose a word like 'decimate'? Perhaps, but if words are like organisms in an evolutionary sense, decimate currently enjoys much more success.