Word Nerd: This is mind-altering, literally

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The language scolds are literally apoplectic. By 2013, several prominent dictionaries, such as Oxford and Webster’s, had expanded their definition of “literally” to mean “figuratively.

In response, the British magazine The Week lamented, “The dictionaries have bowed to the will of the grammar-averse public. As anyone who paid attention in grade school knows, ‘literally’ means ‘in a literal or strict sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense, and is the opposite of ‘figuratively,’ which means ‘in a metaphorical sense’.” This conservative cause even extended to the English colonies. An employee at Words Worth Books, a Waterloo, Ontario, bookstore, wrote on Twitter, “One of our staff was so upset about this, he had to lie down #literally.”

These defenders of the English language are objecting to the morass of a word meaning its opposite. It is as if the word fair can mean foul and yes can mean no. As Spock might say, “This is eminently illogical.”

But languages, unlike mathematics, are not logical constructs, and many words can mean contradictory things. For example, ravel can mean “knit together” and “untangle;” sanction, “permit” and “forbid;” and flammable and inflammable both mean to catch fire easily.

The Oxford’s online definition of literally states, “Informally used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true. In recent years, an extended use of literally has become very common, where literally is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts. This can lead to unintentional humorous effects, (eg ‘We were literally killing ourselves laughing’) and is not acceptable in formal English.”

The OED revealed that it included the figurative sense of literally because of its ubiquitous use by the hoi polloi. Surprisingly, the definition was added in September 2011 but went unnoticed until August 2013. Senior OED editor Fiona McPherson quipped: “It seems to have literally slipped under the radar.”

In casual conversation, literally is often used as an intensifier, much in the way we use the word “certainly” and “really” to transcend meaning “with certainty” and “in reality.” And contrary to the claims of some critics that this is a modern
aberration, we have ample documentation that this usage has been around for centuries. The process began in the 17th century, but only for true statements. For example, John Dryden wrote in his poem The Hind and the Panther, “my daily bread is literally implored,” meaning that one must seek sustenance daily as there are no storage facilities. But within a century, literally was used as an intensifier for things that weren’t true. Frances Brooke writes in her novel The
History of Emily Montague, “ He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival, it is literally to feed among the lilies.”

And as words are essentially metaphors, it is not surprising that the figurative sense of literally often occurs in literature. Hence in 1839, Charles Dickens presented us with this line in Nicholas Nickleby: “‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit.”

In the 20th century, Saul Bellow provided us with this sublime usage in Humboldt’s Gift: “The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”

Both these writers’ use of literally serves the purpose of reminding us that reality is multi-layered. This is not to say that all figurative senses of literally should be tolerated. Like any form of hyperbole, the figurative sense of literally can be overused and descend into cliché. A rule of thumb for creative conversationalists should be only to use the word figuratively if it creates an interesting picture. If not, one might be advised to choose another adverb or adjective.

But alas, most banter is banal, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with an overuse of boring, figurative “literallys.” Also, one should take care that its use doesn’t cause confusion. For example, if someone says (at least in North America) “my school is literally 1,000 years old,” we know that the use is figurative. If the time frame, however, is 100 years old, we can’t discern whether the use was figurative or literal.

I also would not recommend its use in academic papers lest you receive demerits from professors.


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