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Literally Paradoxical

If Jane Austen were to be alive today, writing Mansfield Park for, let’s say, a young-adult audience (might I suggest Mermaids of Mansfield Park?), one particular scene could look amusingly different. Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram are in front of James Rushworth’s estate when Crawford says, “You have a very smiling scene before you.” Maria answers, “Do you mean literally or literally?”—or even, “Do you mean literally or, like, literally?”

In the original text, of course, she says “literally or figuratively”. But recently, both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster have included the second, contemporary definition, much to the aggravation of many a purist. Jim Edwards of Business Insider is on the offensive, calling those who use the word in its non-literal sense “traitors of the English language” and “barbarians”. He finds solace in the six1 entries in the Urban Dictionary, which mostly come down to “not figuratively”, and many provide examples containing insults that would probably be edited out of this article. The entries that do apply the figurative meaning are notably the only entries with more thumbs down than up.

Many bloggers also exploded, though not literally literally, such as author and illustrator Josephine Dayco: “Each time I hear it misused, I have to refrain myself from walking straight up to that person and slapping them across the face. And no, not in an exaggerated sense. I mean the opposite of that—literally.” She continues in further abusive language, accusing fans of the word of lacking intellect, yet Michelle W. on Wordpress’ Daily Post mentions that it is “generally accepted even among the well-educated”. Other bloggers came up with further terms they thought should be included in the OED, some replacing existing terms with entirely random words like carrot, others addressing the common misuse of words: One complaint letter drew a comparison between the mix-up of Pacific and specific.

On the other hand, many sources appear to embrace or at the very least accept the new definition. The Telegraph assistant comment editor Tom Chivers draws a comparison with quite — which may mean “very” (in particular in American English) as well as “fairly” (especially in British English) — claiming that “both meanings exist quite happily (…) in the language, because context reveals them”. He also names wicked, another term that can go either way. To this I would like to add a personal favourite, an adjective that is especially popular on TV Tropes: egregious “remarkable in a good or bad sense” has made it onto their personal drinking game page, with a note that it appears in over 1400 of the site’s entries. So while it is true that some words come in opposite flavours, the context in which they are used will still show what the intended meaning is. The same goes for literally: Everyone will know you did not literally die when the line-up for your festival of choice was announced, for instance.

To pull a Henry Fielding, this paragraph is not actually about literally or about the English language at all. But it does reinforce my previous statement: If you are at all familiar with Japanese, you will know that one kanji or Chinese character may represent a host of different meanings, yet it will still be clear from the context that, for instance, one is talking about the moon rather than a month. They may have related meanings but no one is likely to confuse the two.

Back to English. StyleCaster weasels out of taking a stance by pushing the matter onto its readership, but it also raises an interesting question: What is the value of the written and spoken word? While the question is not clearly answered, The Guardian writer Martha Gill argues that it is probably best to avoid literally altogether, as it can no longer be used comically, and causes one to sound like a teenager. This would suggest that language can lose all meaning, and we must wonder if this is indeed the case. Will literally become an “invisible” word, much like said as a dialogue tag in novels?

Not necessarily. The blog Eating the Pages points out that people use literally and similar hyperboles to counter the distance they have created through words such as like: “I analyzed the use of the word ‘like’ as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as ‘really’ and ‘seriously’ to bring that simulated experience (the ‘like’) closer to us.” By this, he indicates that literally (and seriously and really) still carries semantic significance — or rather, that it has adopted a semantic significance which resulted from a gap created by like-words. This opposed to the said-tag, which does very little other than that it connects a character’s speech to his or her name.

Further, Oxford University Press’s Katherine Martin says in a National Geographic news article, “We [the composers of dictionaries] serve a dual purpose: to help people compose text and to help people understand text[.] We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t provide definitions of words as they are actually used.” Language is in a state of constant flux, whether one likes where it is headed or not, and dictionaries should be open for adaptation to change; after all, the only unchanging language is one that is dead.

Additionally, the claims made against language change are actually rather ironic in this instance. Literally made its first nonliteral appearance well over two hundred years ago. According to the OED, it was first recorded in 1769 in Frances Brooke’s 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.” It is therefore odd that language conservatives are protesting the inclusion of the figurative meaning, and it can definitely not be claimed that non-literal literally is a development of the “uneducated Internet age”.

Rushmore’s estate may be literally smiling or it may be literally smiling — whichever your interpretation, both are now officially correct; and like it or not, we should learn to deal with it.

by Valerie Brentjes


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Blalock, Meghan. “Major Zeitgeist Moment: Merriam-Webster Says ‘Literally’ Can Mean Not So Literally.” StyleCaster. StyleCaster, Inc., 30 Oct. 2013.

Chivers, Tom. “No We Haven’t ‘Literally Killed’ the English Language. Or Metaphorically Killed It. Stand Down, Semantics Nerds.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 13 Aug. 2013.

Dayco, Josephine. Josephine Dayco. 29 Oct. 2013. Web.

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Edwards, Jim. “Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of ‘Literally’” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc., 14 Aug. 2013.

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“I Was Literally Not Going to Write This Post Today.” Eating the Pages. 28 Oct. 2013. Web.

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“literally, adv.” OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press.

“literally.” Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary, 5 Dec. 2003 to 8 Jan. 2012.

Skurie, Jaclyn. “The Literal Truth About The Word Literally.” National Geographic: Daily News. National Geographic Society, 16 Aug. 2013.

W., Michelle. “Blast from the Past: Literally.” The Daily Post., 9 Oct. 2013.