I Might Be a Language Purist (But There’s Hope for Me) – Part 2
Written by Laura Oviedo-Guzmán
Maybe you know the story by now, but if you couldn’t or won’t read part one, I’ll catch you up. I had to write a term paper for my Philosophy of Language course. Luckily for me, one of the prompts was about one of my favourite topics–how we managed to shift the meaning of words in our language. Please enjoy the second, shorter part of my paper on how we’ve managed to shift the meaning of the word “literally.” If the closing paragraph makes no sense, I suggest you go back to our February issue to make it more sense.
You Literally Don’t Know What You’re Talking About
Literally–another word with a meaning usurped by the masses. I distinctly remember learning this word from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “If something happens literally, it happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening” (2007). Maybe this is why I find myself fighting the urge to ask someone why they are not receiving medical care if they “literally died” when they saw an artist perform live the night before.
To my surprise, the word has been used as an intensifier for true statements since the late 17th century. To my even greater surprise, literary greats like James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald were using it as an intensifier for metaphorical and figurative statements, much, in the same way,it is used today (Sheidlower, 2005), following a trend that began in the 19th century. From the 20th onwards, criticism about using the word literally as an intensifier for true and metaphorical statements became popular. Concerns about the word’s “true” meaning being completely opaqued by its new use made their way online, like the Boston.com article titled Literally the Most Misused Word (2011).
I have some ideas about the shift of use regarding this word. I believe this was a calculated liberty concerning the literary greats’ usegreats’. They purposefully chose to transplant this word to involve the reader in the reality they built in their work. I am sure someone could make the same argument about, for example, TikTok users’ use of this word, that they are trying to draw the viewer into their felt reality, but it just does not stand.
I have reckoned with my elitism and asked myself if literary greats can take these linguistic liberties because they are literary greats. Can they solely base on their prestige as authors? Not in my eyes. For me, this group of people gets a pass because their stories are works of fiction–they are creating a reality that does not exist, not recounting one that does. TikTokers and laypeople I encounter daily often use literally to emphasize something mundane, something that happens in a world where we can all see it and, therefore, does not necessitate hyperbole to make the listener feel like it is real. Said differently, literary greats who write fiction can get away with this shift because we will never experience whatever they are communicating to us beyond the images their language conjures in our minds. Therefore, it makes sense that they literally set the scene and push the message onto us readers. These worlds do not exist, so we need the heavy-handed use of words to bring them into being in our minds. When a person is recounting an event from their lives, like seeing their favourite performer live, the disclosure does not call for the same dramatic use of language. We can understand how exciting and surprising it is to see a performance from someone one admires without hearing about how the other half of the conversation “literally died.”
In the latter instance, I believe people who use it literally in an exaggerated way choose to use it because they believe it lends credibility to whatever they are saying. They have seen it used to refer to something that is factually true, that can be physically referred to by academic authorities (through books, videos, and other media), and have misconstrued’s role as an intensifier. Essentially, they emulate a position of authority and the confidence afforded by their use of the word literally, ultimately shifting its use.
We come back to the question of how much freedom we, as language users, have to change or shift the meaning of words. This case is not as cut and dry as the one concerning emotional labour because, unlike that term, literally’s coiner is not around to intercede and give us their two cents. Of course, we have people like lexicographer Bryan Garner warning us about the risk of losing the true meaning of this word and hordes of people who try to correct others about its use. However, it is unlikely that people will move onto a different intensifier for some time, given its current presence in speech and its pervasive presence on social media. Add to this the fact that the younger generation already receives so much information about the world through social media use, and information about the use of language is no exception.
Lastly, Jesse Sheidlower, former editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, said the following about the word literal during a segment on NPR (2005):
“the literal meaning of ‘literal’ is something like ‘according to the letter.’ So when we use ‘literally’ to refer to something other than individual letters, [we are] already walking down the figurative path”.
Given this glaring shift in use, what right do I have to criticize the use mentioned above of literally when we do not even use it in its original sense?
Perhaps I have outed myself as a language purist in this text–I am a massive fan of precision, especially in language, because I believe it makes life easier, especially when talking about important issues our society faces. I also think it makes the conversation more enjoyable when there is no guesswork involved in understanding whether my friend was in danger at an event, but that one might be on me for taking things too seriously. Nevertheless, I continue to be amazed at our capacity to shift the meaning of terms, whether it is through concept creep, artistic choice, or dramatic/legitimizing misuse of a word. The fact that our brains and communities can accommodate novel, albeit incorrect, understandings of a word will always amaze me. However, I still think some examination and restraint are needed to understand the world around us truly.
Boston.com Staff. (2011, July 19). Literally the most misused word. Www.boston.com. https://www.boston.com/culture/lifestyle/2011/07/19/literally-the-most-misused-word/
Definition of LITERALLY. (n.d.). Www.merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally
Sheidlower, J. (2005, November 3). Use or Abuse of the Word “Literally.” NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4988053
Snicket, L. (2007). The Bad Beginning. Bt Bound.