Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Latest on Literal

Much as I try to tamp down my grammar-prescriptivist tendencies, I have to admit the use of "literally" in nonliteral moments grates on me. Hearing that several dictionaries have added "figuratively" as an acceptable definition made me a bit sad. Not sad like the way I feel about drones being used to kill children, but still.

We can all agree that "I literally died" is out of bounds, can't we?

I guess not, according to Dennis Baron of the University of Illinois. He writes charmingly on the subject and lists a number of words that we commonly use to mean two opposite concepts:

  • Dust (the crops vs. the furniture)
  • Oversight (you can be responsible for it in two different ways, one good, one bad)
  • Scan (it originally meant to look over thoroughly... who knew?)
  • Fast (you can go fast or be stuck fast)
  • Cleave (someone's head open or to your wife)
So if all of those contradictions haven't made our heads literally explode, I guess we can get used to literally meaning figuratively.

But still, I think "I literally died" is bad. What about "I felt like I had died" or "I wanted to die"? Can't we all agree on that one exception?


Michael Leddy said...

Oh, it’s bad, no question. And since literally intensifies meaning — “I was literally writhing in agony,” meaning that I really was indeed writhing — using it to mean “figuratively” is counterintuitive. If you’re using a metaphor — “he talked my ear off” — then literally makes no sense.

I think the real question though is whether people who are so quick to assert that the figurative literally is okay would ever be caught dead using it. Somehow their usage always seems top-drawer.

Gina said...

Oh, I don't like this at all. I don't think "literally" fits into that list of words with contradictory meanings. I want to keep the original meaning of each -- literally and figuratively. LOL

Daughter Number Three said...

I agree -- I don't intend to use it to mean figuratively.

But I always find it useful to be reminded that there are other instances where a usage that's been around for a while breaks the same rule.