No, this isn’t about literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s about the word “literally.”
Faithful readers of this blog will know that, when it comes to language, I’m a fairly ardent usagist/ descriptivist. I think language is a biological function that depends on constant change in order to work. I tend to embrace changes in the language rather than resisting them. I think grammar books would be more effective if they taught the rules of the language as it actually is, rather than as the authors think it ought to be. And I think that arguing “that’s not what this word really means,” when it’s how the majority of people using the language use it and understand it, is absurd. There is no objective, Platonic form of the word “nice” — it means what we understand it to mean.
But while I am a passionate descriptivist, I’m not a hard-line one. I understand that, while language has to change in order to work, it also has to have some consistency in order to work. If we don’t agree on what the words we use mean (as well as on the structures we use put them together), then language becomes nonsense. And while I think it’s silly to resist changes in the language just on principle, I think it is worth discussing whether any particular change is necessary, desirable, comprehensible, and/or graceful.
Which brings me back to “literally.”
The meaning of the word “literally” seems to be changing. And it’s changing to a meaning that’s almost the exact opposite of the original meaning. The original meaningâŠ well, according to Merriam Webster Online, the original meaning was “according with the letter of the scriptures,” which kind of proves my point about language changing. But for some time now, it’s meant actual, real: “adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression,” “free from exaggeration or embellishment,” “characterized by a concern mainly with facts.”
The new meaning is almost exactly the opposite. It’s used to mean “virtually.” And it’s used as an intensifier, like “really” or “very.” It’s used to mean, “This didn’t actually happen in the strictest sense, but it was so intense that it seemed as if it did.” My favorite example of the new usage is still the first time I heard it about 25 years ago, when a radio announcer describing a hijacking said, “The stewardesses were literally beside themselves.”
And I do have a problem with this.
But my problem isn’t “that’s not what ‘literally’ really means.”
My problem is that the original meaning is extremely useful, and we don’t currently have another word to replace it.
The original meaning of “literally” is a strikingly useful one. As a writer, when I’m trying to say that something is actually, factually true — that I’m not exaggerating, I’m not using hyperbole, it happened in the real world in the exact way I’m describing it — “literally” is an excellent word. “I was literally screaming with rage over changes in the language”… that means something specific. It doesn’t mean, “I was so angry I wanted to scream with rage,” or, “I almost screamed with rage,” or, “it felt like I was screaming with rage.” The image of someone actually, factually, physically screaming with rage is a very expressive one — and it’s completely different from the image of someone who’s just pretty darned peeved.
But as the meaning of the word “literally” changes, I find that I have to clarify when I use it. And because we don’t currently have another word to replace the old meaning, I wind up using several words where one used to do. I say things like “literally — and I mean ‘literally’ literally, not virtually.” Or “this literally, physically, factually happened.”
Which sucks. I’m already a verbose enough writer without having to give up a single word that meant exactly what I meant, and replace it with six words that more or less get the idea across.
And while I think “that’s not what this word really means” is a terrible argument against a word changing, I do think that “the original meaning of this word is useful, we don’t have another word to replace it, and we shouldn’t have to use six words where one would do” is an excellent one.
I recognize that the new meaning of “literally” seems to have precedent. (I’m not a language scholar, so if there are any language scholars reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.)
Look at the word “really.” “Really” is commonly used as an intensifier. True, it sometimes is used to mean “actually” or “literally”: “she sees things as they really are,” “that’s not what ‘literally’ really means.” But it’s very, very commonly used as an intensifier — “I was really angry about this,” “that sunset was really stunning.” And even the most ardent prescriptivist wouldn’t bat an eye at this usage. There’s no comment in the dictionary to say that it’s non-standard or controversial. It’s one of the accepted and most commonly-used meanings of the word.
But the root of the word is the word “real.” And I assume that it became an intensifier in exactly the same way “literally” has: people were creating emphasis by essentially saying, “This didn’t actually happen in the strictest sense, but it was so intense that it seemed as if it did.” (Ditto the intensifier “very,” which comes from the same root as “verily” or “verity” — i.e., truthful.)
And nobody pitches a fit when someone says, “That sunset was really stunning.” Nobody says, “Oh, it was ‘really’ stunning? It knocked you into unconsciousness in the ‘real’ sense, did it?” My cousin and I laughed ourselves sick over “The stewardesses were literally beside themselves”… but we wouldn’t have batted an eye over, “The stewardesses were really beside themselves.” Adapting a word meaning “real” or “true” for use as an intensifier clearly has precedent.
What’s more, there’s precedent for words changing to mean almost their exact opposites. The word “nice,” for instance, used to mean (and still sometimes does mean) “overly fastidious” or “nitpicky.” Not a very nice thing to be… certainly not by the most common current meaning of “nice,” i.e. pleasant and agreeable. (And before it meant “picky,” it meant “foolish” or “wanton.” Also not very nice things to be. Well, a case could be made for “wanton”…)
Arguing against a change in language that’s obviously catching on is like arguing against the tides, or against species evolving to adapt to changing environments. I could blog about “literally” all day long, I could devote my entire blog to this issue alone, I could rally my fellow bloggers to the cause… and it would still do fuck-all. It might slow the process down a bit, but it’s not going to stop it.
The need of the language for new intensifiers seems to be endless, a black hole of ravenous hunger that never dies and is never sated. Once a word has become a commonly used intensifier, it becomes, well, common, and no longer all that intense. “Excellent” now mostly means “pretty darned good,” and you have to say something like “exceptional” if you want to convey the idea of excelling. And “really” and “very” are now completely half-assed intensifiers, the intensifiers you use when you want to say, “Well, it was intense, but it wasn’t all that intense.”
So while I will continue to grieve over the loss of “literally,” I think I have to be realistic and give up the fight. Instead, I’ll take the energy I used to spend battling the new meaning, and use it instead searching for a word to replace the old one.
“Factually.” Hm, that could work. Any thoughts?