Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Keep calm and look it up

There's really a limited number of times we ought to have to say this, but -- shut up, BuzzFeed. You're as entitled to your peeves as anyone, but you shouldn't imagine that they're universal, and if you think you've just demonstrated in some novel way that the world is going to semantic hell in a handbasket, you should calm down and read the stuff you're citing.

The OED, for instance. It does indeed point out that figurative "literally" is "now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English." But it does not suggest that the usage is new or that Those Kids with their baseball caps and rock 'n' roll have somehow forced it upon an unwilling public. Rather, it traces the not-literally form of "literally" to -- um, 1769. "Literally" has literally meant "figuratively" longer than the US has been a country, and if you have a problem with that, take it up with Mark Twain. And, yes, it still manages to mean "literally" as well; that's literally like being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

One of my favorite things is when peevers bitch about some horrible new usage and it proves to be centuries old.

9:11 PM, March 05, 2013  
Anonymous Adrian Morgan said...

While I agree with you on the main point, I do think the dictionary definitions cited in the BuzzFeed article leave something to be desired.

I'm not aware of any evidence that people use 'literally' "to acknowledge that something is not literally true", as the cited Google definition asserts. It's used as an intensifier in non-literal contexts, meaning something like "nearer the truth than you might think", but acknowledging the non-literality of that context doesn't enter into it, AFAICS.

9:52 AM, March 06, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

I agree with Adrian's point, and, rebelliously, I'd go further: I think the paucity and awkwardness of all those definitions are a indication of lexicographical over-hastiness. The secondary definitions Buzzfeed cites aren't so much definitions as they are narratives; I can't immediately think of any other word in the dictionary that receives this sort of 'actually, it's a bit difficult to explain' treatment.

Yes, people use literally, as they do 'seriously', when they don't really mean it. But to define a word as one that indicates a change in register, and then to canonise a second 'definition' of the word to indicate it does nothing of the sort is hugely ambitious undertaking. It's a genuine paradox; the two definitions in effect annihilate each other, to my mind.

10:55 AM, March 06, 2013  

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