Note: The lady mentioned in this post has objected to the use of her name, which I have deleted out of consideration of her wishes.
Let me first assure you that this is not just one more post about literally. It could as well be about singular they, hopefully, irregardless, or any of the other shibboleths peevers brandish, their voices rising an octave or so. It did start out with literally, in an exchange on Facebook with a lady who has fixed views about language. (I present the exchanges at the bottom of this post so that you can get the flavor of the dialogue.)
The lady dislikes the figurative sense of literally, and she is well within her rights. It's her language, too, and she is entitled to her tastes and preferences. But her remarks display a number of misapprehensions that are commonplace in discussions about language and usage, so it may be useful to identify them.
When she says that the figurative sense of literally is a problem because "dictionaries changed the definition," she falls into the vulgar error of thinking that dictionaries dictate meaning and usage rather than following where the language goes. (I am sure that she will appreciate that I am using vulgar in its original "of the people" sense rather than suggesting that she is coarse or rude.) There's no excuse for this in an educated person. dictionaries explain quite explicitly in their prefaces what the lexicographers are up to.
The assertion that the figurative sense of literally is "meaningless" is of a piece with the peeverish assertion that irregardless is "not a word." They are words, and they have meanings. You can, in fact, look them up. What the lady means is that she does not like the word to carry that sense. But while she has every right to her tastes and preferences, she does not have the right to dictate what the language is. English is the collective product of its speakers and writers over time, and it has very commonly been the case that what is scorned as today's error becomes tomorrow's settled usage.
The adamant insistence that literally can have but a single meaning suggests a Platonic view of language, that words have essences, given meanings that are somehow corrupted when they alter in usage. The peeververein generally appear to hold this view and to see it as their role as heroes of culture to uphold and impose it. I fancy that not many of us would care to live in Plato's nasty republic with these people as the self-proclaimed elite rulers.
We must not ignore the lady's concession that language is mutable. Nearly all the great peevers acknowledge that language changes. It's just that it should have been fixed when they were sophomores in high school. All the good changes have already happened, and all subsequent changes are degenerate.
What lurks beneath the Facebook exchanges is the lady's failure to acknowledge register. There are many varieties of English and many contexts and occasions for their use. If I were writing a technical or scientific paper, I wouldn't dream of using the figurative literally. It would be out of place. It could conceivably lead to confusion. But if in conversation someone says, "I literally hit the ceiling when they sprang a story on me that wasn't on the budget," I understand that literally is hyperbolic, not factual. And I make no objection to its use, because I'm not empowered to make a citizen's arrest over the way people talk.
The peever fallacy is to talk as if there were only one register of English, formal written English. That's why they throw a hissy when they discover that some demotic term has been admitted to the sacred precincts of the dictionary, violating its chastity.
I don't expect any of this post to persuade the lady, any more than my Facebook responses did. She knows right and wrong, mostly wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary cuts no ice with her. Garner's Modern American Usage might as well be an after-dinner belch. And I doubt that she would put much stock in reformed stickler Bill Walsh. Anyone who disagrees with her views on language is either ignorant or inexplicably advocating ignorance. (That is offensive. Incidentally, I know the attitude from the inside. In my tepid-blooded youth as a graduate student in an English department, I was as thoroughgoing a language snob as you will find either in captivity or the wild.)
We shall have to let her go her own way.
But for you, I continue to cherish hope. Hope that there are readers out there like you who are reasonable people, receptive to argument and empirical evidence. You are the ones I write for.
Lady: Language is a mutable thing - not all changes are good. Changing the definition of "marriage" to be inclusive is awesome. Changing the definition of "literally" to be absurd... not so much... (I'd actually prefer "like totally" for that usage - at least you know it's idiomatic...)
McIntyre: "Literally" as "figuratively" IS idiomatic. Whether you approve or not, that is a fact of the language.
Lady: OK, you have a point. But using it idiomatically like that makes it meaningless. I guess if we just consider it "slang"...
McIntyre: Well, you can call it "wrong," but on whose authority? Even "Garner's Modern American Usage" acknowledges the figurative sense without outright condemnation. If you call it "slang," how do you explain away two and a half centuries of usage by reputable writers, as recorded in the OED?
McIntyre: If we labeled the usage "hyperbole," would that make it more palatable?
Lady: Not really. It's not exaggeration, it's just untrue. There ARE appropriate times to use "literally", as in Michelle's headline. Saying "literally" when something is nothing of the sort just weakens the word, and it will become meaningless. The next time you say "I was literally shaking in my boots" or "the line was literally around the block and down the street", people will just snort derisively. (Literally - they will make disgusting pig noises at you. Mark my words...)
Lady: I think you have displayed why you are mistaken. "Literally" doesn't become meaningless, because you understand perfectly well that "I was literally shaking in my boots" is intended as an exaggeration rather than a physical account. "Literally" in this instance is an intensifier, and no one misunderstands the meaning. You don't have to like it, and you don't have to use it, but you can't say that it is meaningless as long as everyone who uses it and hears it understands a meaning, a meaning, incidentally, recorded in dictionaries because it is long-established and generally understood.
Lady: Let's just agree to disagree. I guess you've never experienced a situation where you were, indeed, shaking in your boots!
McIntyre: No, or indeed hit the ceiling either. But I understand what is meant.
Lady: Well, if someone told me they "literally hit the ceiling" I would assume they were involved in a accident involving a ladder, or were in a severe earthquake, or were bloody well lying. Cheers!
McIntyre: Now you're just being perverse.
Lady: Disagreement is not the same thing as perversion. And literally means literally. Cheers!
McIntyre: Literally means two different things, whether you think so or not. You could look it up.
Lady: Only because that dictionary changed the definition, which is the point of this conversation. Sheesh. So now it means its opposite, just because people have often used it wrong. A proud day for the English language...
McIntyre: Dictionaries do not change meanings. People change meanings, and dictionaries record the changes as definitions. Dictionaries don't dictate the language; they follow the language. And the language is what people, generally, over time, make it. That's why "nice," for example, no longer means "slutty."
Lady: I am aware of the mutability of language (as I mentioned in my first post on this subject). However, does common usage dictate correctness in every case? Is "irregardless" a word, and should "I could care less" be considered correct? For that matter, I've heard lots of people (including my kids, whom I smacked) say "there go Sasha's house" - shall we enter that into the grammar books? I don't think there's much more to be gained from arguing this point, but using "literally" to mean essentially whatever you want it to mean is just plain ignorant and dumb, and obfuscates a perfectly good language. Cheers!
McIntyre: Now you've provoked me with "ignorant and dumb." I'll be taking this to the blog.
Lady: I'm really quite amazed that anyone would be so up in arms about defending the improper and misleading use of a word. I'd consider this a pretty sad day for the English language. (I actually quite enjoy slang, too - but this isn't slang, it's just sloppy.)
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun