Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Literally Don’t Care How You Use the Word Literally

photo courtesy NBC

Does your ire fire up when you hear someone use literally in the following context: “She literally chewed my ear off, going on and on about how she met what’s his name from that movie.”* If your face has turned bright red and you’re figuratively blowing off some steam, you just might be a prescriptivist. A prescriptivist is a grammar geek who champions the rules of written language. It doesn’t matter so much to a prescriptivist who invented these rules; the important part is they be followed. Don’t begin a sentence with “And.” Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Disregard for the rules, whether blatant or not, is fuel for the prescriptivist’s fire.
* If you’re not sure what literally truly means, let’s just say the above speaker would be in surgery right know, enshrouded by a team of medical professionals trying to figure out what to do about the gaping hole.
If you found nothing wrong with the sentence, however, you probably align yourselves with the descriptivists. A descriptivist is someone who embraces spoken language. Like a research scientist in the field, the descriptivist records dialogue from her chosen subjects, listening for patterns of usage regardless of the rules and regulations of English. She is much more comfortable defining language by how people use it rather than by the language laws decreed by the twentieth-century English-language gods Fowler, Strunk, and White. So when she hears literally in the above sentence, she knows that the speaker isn’t concerned about the literal meaning of literally, here, but uses the word for effect. (Americans love to use adverbs to gain attention . . . whatever.)

Along the prescriptivism/descriptivism spectrum, I find myself caught in the middle of these two schools of thought, especially when I write for myself. If I’m copyediting someone else’s work, I lean a little towards the prescriptivist camp, since I have to abide by house rules, i.e., the rules the editor wants her copyeditors to follow.

Back in 2011, prescriptivists’ panties were in a much reported bunch over Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to offer an alternative, “informal” definition for literally in 2011. “Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.” (I love how OED uses the word it’s defining in the definition.) Merriam-Webster rolled its new definition out in 2013: “in effect : virtually.”

They both get it right, and M-W is emphatic that figurative, the opposite of literal, is not intended by its speakers. In its Usage Discussion section, the editors clearly pinpoint what we mean when we use literally nonliterally:
Since some people take sense 2 [in effect : virtually] to be the opposite of sense 1 [in a literal sense or manner : actually], it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
If M-W’s Usage Discussion doesn’t convince you, and you still think that people use literally to mean figuratively, try swapping them in a sentence:
I figuratively jumped out of my skin when Dmitri, wearing only a Scream mask, woke me up in the middle of the night. 
You’re so cute, I could eat you alive, figuratively.
Egads. No one in his or her right mind would utter such bizarreness.

One thing is certain: these alternative definitions show how our language evolves. Dictionaries often bend to the vicissitudes of our spoken language when new usage gains traction. And because literally has been used for over a century in its second sense (e.g., Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”; and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “The land literally flowed with milk and honey.”), it seemed only a matter of time for distinguished dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford, to acknowledge this evolution.

My partner Steve’s cousin Amy came to visit this weekend with her brother, Brian, and the four of us argued spiritedly about the putative misuse of this charged word. Brian seems to align himself with the prescriptivists. Amy utters literally quite liberally, much to Brian’s chagrin. But was she misusing the word? According to these ears, no. Plopping herself down on our living room chair after a sixteen-hour car ride from Milwaukee, she exclaimed, “There were literally no flights in the Midwest.” It was this declaration that set off the debate.

Amy continued to say literally throughout the weekend, always using it (in her mind) to mean actually. But in saying the word, she seemed to always put it in italics, which in turn seemed to evoke the second definition, virtually. I could see Brian begin to bristle. Being a fair and balanced grammarian, I pointed out that Amy always seems to combine both meanings into one super-meaning: She intends literally to mean actually, but she also wants the listener to understand that “Yeah, I know what I’m saying sounds crazy, but it’s true. There were literally no flights. For real. No joke.” When Amy says literally, she wants to have her cake and eat it too. And I applaud her for that. She knows that she has to be emphatic when using literally literally, or else no one will believe her.

Does this mean that the word literally has become meaningless? A victim of its own usage and ostensible misapplication? Perhaps a few more decades must pass before we have the answer. But, until then, we can use the word in whichever context we desire, emphatically or otherwise.

Fun facts:

Did you know that literally can be pronounced more than one way? Besides the four-syllable pronunciation of LIT-uh-ruh-lee (or LIT-ur-uh-lee), you can be confident saying it in three syllables—the way Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger discharged it literally a million times in his optimistically fast staccato on Parks and Recreation: LIH-truh-lee. I would giggle like a young grammarian every time I heard that word burst from his mouth.

Did you also know that literal is a homonym with littoral, which means, according to M-W, “of or relating to or on or near a shore especially of the sea”? Most people—except sailors, coastal zoologists and botanists, and Cousin Amy, who is in the U.S.N.R (that’s the Navy Reserve, for us civilians)—have never heard this word before and, when they do hear it, naturally think of literal. If you really want to confuse a sailor, coastal zoologist, or Amy, try this sentence on for size: “During ebb tide, the beach was littorally flecked with seaweed and abandoned shells that once housed small critters of the sea.”

Amy informed me that the men and women with whom she bivouacs pronounce littoral Lih-TOR-uhl, rhyming it with the way many men (and misinformed women) pronounce clitoral. This was exciting news to me. I immediately thought, How many years will it take for Oxford and Merriam-Webster to offer an alternative pronunciation?

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