Tuesday, May 22, 2012

'Literally' Is Dead

            Language is a living thing.  It changes with usage and context.  Words like ‘epic’ and ‘ridiculous’ are modern examples of the shifting meaning of words.  Emphasis on shifting.  The meaning of a word generally changes gradually (except in extreme cases, e.g., the word ‘titanic’ after the ship sank), and follows a logical progression.  For example, ridiculous meant ‘deserving of ridicule’ but like other terms (e.g. incredible), it can also be used to refer to something that is bizarre or so impressive that it seems beyond belief.  The use shifted over time, from describing something foolish then incorporating things that were bizarre or confusing, then incorporating things that are so beyond belief that they seem bizarre or impossible and finally including mundane things that seem strange or unlikely.  There is a path between the original and current meaning.  Which is why I can’t stand it when people justify misusing ‘literally’ with the ‘living language’ argument. 

            The problem with people misusing ‘literally’, as opposed to almost any other common misuse of language, is twofold.  1. They are using it to mean the exact opposite of its definition and 2. it completely obscures the meaning of the sentence it’s used in.  If a sentence is obviously figurative, using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’ adds nothing to the sentence.  I wouldn’t say, “I was figuratively scared to death,” because it’s obviously a figurative statement.  Using ‘literally’ instead of ‘figuratively’ doesn’t add anything.  But that’s only a minor problem compared to sentences that are not obviously figurative.  If I said, “I was so scared, I literally passed out,” it’s possible that I’m being figurative or literal.  If I said that to someone who didn’t know me, they couldn’t tell whether I had actually passed out, or was just very startled. 

            Words are meant to help clearly express ideas and events, and this word has lost its ability to do so.  If used incorrectly, it does not provide the listener with any more information.  If used correctly, it adds uncertainty to the meaning of the sentence. It had a good run, but I think it’s time we laid this word to rest. 

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