Sunday, February 12, 2012

Today's Post Is A Daily Double — Literally!

Today, we have a pair of etymologic meditations on the word, literally. If this is (fair & balanced) philology, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point.

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[1] A 2012 Take On Literally, Thanks To A. Barton Hinkle
[2] A 2005 Take On Literally, Thanks To Jesse Sheidlower

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It’s Enough to Literally Make Your Head Explode
By A. Barton Hinkle

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“I got ROBBED. I don't mean the Oscars, I mean literally. My pants and shoes have been stolen.”

— Albert Brooks, in a Tweet earlier in 2012.

Commenting recently on the GOP presidential race, prominent political prognosticator Larry Sabato said that in Florida, “we have what is literally a Category 5 hurricane for the Republican nomination.”

Literally? Yikes. The last time a Cat-5 hurricane made landfall in the United States was seven years ago, when Katrina slammed into New Orleans. Tuesday’s primary was eventful, but nothing as bad as all that. The word Sabato wanted was “figuratively,” not literally.

He is not alone. About the same time, a Denver TV station was reporting that a young man named Jordan Staucet “is pounding the pavement — literally — looking for a job.” So he was hammering the concrete with his fists? Not exactly. He was simply walking around handing out résumés.

“Pounding the pavement” is an idiom, a figure of speech, and normally nobody would perform a figurative act literally. If you say someone does pound the pavement literally, then you are saying — well, you know.

Unlike the Denver station, Deadline grokked that distinction when it surmised Dwight Schrute, a character on "The Office," could be “off to greener pastures... literally.” ABC reportedly has been considering a spinoff that would feature the Schrute family on its beet farm.

It was a different story for The Awl, which complained recently that “Free Subway Rag Now Literally Destroying America.” (The Awl is free too; maybe free online rags are superior to free print rags. Anything’s possible!) The object of the author’s ire was a publication called Metro, which had written a headline about Barack Obama’s State of the Union address that the Awl writer didn’t like. America, somehow, is still standing.

In that case, the Awl writer was so cheesed off she felt it not sufficient to say merely that Metro was destroying the nation. She wanted to say so even more emphatically, and so added “literally,” which seems vaguely illiterate.

This is a snooty, pedantic complaint—but certainly not an original one. A “Dictionary of Jack” YouTube video made the same point five years ago. Minnesota Public Radio has aired the question. Plenty of others have griped about the subject as well. For a while, there was a blog keeping track of slipshod uses of literally—such as when Education Secretary Arne Duncan said starting the school year in September, rather than sometime earlier, was “literally taking a step backward.” (Because students forget what they learn in the spring.) Or when a spokeswoman for Sarah Palin said “the world is literally her oyster.” Palin’s detractors would call that casting pearls before swine.

To be fair, this persnickety criticism might not be, um, fair. Jesse Sheidlower, a dictionary editor, let it be known a while back in Slate that we shouldn’t take such statements quite so literally. In “The Trouble With Literally,” [Xee below] he notes that using literally as an intensifier has quite a literary pedigree. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Jay Gatsby “literally glowed,” and Louisa May Alcott wrote that “the land literally flowed with milk and honey.” They didn’t mean either of those statements literally. They meant Gatsby really, really glowed and the land was really, really plentiful.

To Sheidlower, this is no big deal, since in the strictest sense, “literally” does not mean what we usually mean it to mean anyway. We have already wandered from the original purpose of “literally” whenever we use it in any sense other than “to copy a text word for word or letter for letter.” (The Latin root is litteralis, “of or relating to letters.”) So if you say you are literally sick to your stomach, and then vomit, you are still using the word “literally,” as it were, figuratively.

Or at least that’s his theory. Sheidlower is obviously some sort of Bolshevik, in league with the one-worlders at the UN who are pushing Agenda 21 down our throats with black helicopters and lies about evolution and global warming. All patriotic Americans ought to stand up and say enough is enough. We need a law to put a stop to this literally-abuse. If we don’t get one – and soon – then the Almighty is sure to send another Flood as punishment for our transgressions.

In fact, it may already be too late. As these words are written, it is raining cats and dogs outside. Literally!

[A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia.]

Copyright © 2012 Reason Magazine

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The Word We Love To Hate: Literally
By Jesse Sheidlower

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When I introduce myself as a dictionary editor to a stranger, I can usually count on a few things. The stranger will say, "Oh, I'll have to watch how I talk in front of you." The stranger will ask me about why some word like bling was put into The Dictionary (as though there's only one). And then the stranger will complain about a pet usage peeve, some error perpetrated by members of a disliked group—sportscasters, say, or teenagers, or Americans.

Recently, strangers I meet seem particularly peeved by people who use literally to mean figuratively (the ones who say things like "he literally exploded with rage"). Even strangers I don't meet are fixated—two of them run a reasonably informed blog devoted to "tracking abuse of the word 'literally.' "

As is often the case, though, such "abuses" have a long and esteemed history in English. The ground was not especially sticky in Little Women when Louisa May Alcott wrote that "the land literally flowed with milk and honey,"nor was Tom Sawyer turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as "literally rolling in wealth," nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that "he literally glowed," nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was "the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat." Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate.

How did literally come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant? The earliest uses of literally were "in a literal manner; word for word" ("translated literally from Greek") and "in a literal sense; exactly" ("He didn't mean that literally").

By the late 17th century, though, literally was being used as an intensifier for true statements. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Dryden and Pope for this sense; Jane Austen, in Sanditon, wrote of a stormy night that, "We had been literally rocked in our bed." In these examples, literally is used for the sake of emphasis alone.

Eventually, though, literally began to be used to intensify statements that were themselves figurative or metaphorical. The earliest examples I know of are from the late 18th century, and though there are examples throughout the 19th century—often in prominent works; to my earlier examples could be added choice quotations from James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau, among many others—no one seems to have objected to the usage until the early 20th century. In 1909, Ambrose Bierce included the term in Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, offering the following sentence—"His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet."—as suspect. "It is bad enough to exaggerate," he wrote, "but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable." Revered usage writer H.W. Fowler complained in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage that, "We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that ... we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." The examples usually stigmatized are the ones in which literally modifies a cliché or a metaphoric use that is already highly figurative.

Why, though, did this usage of literally suddenly come under such fire? It is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means. Called "Janus words," "contranyms," or "auto-antonyms," they include cleave ("to stick to" and "to split apart"), dust ("to remove dust from" and "to sprinkle dust upon"), moot ("able to be discussed; arguable" and "purely theoretical") and peruse and scan (each meaning both "to read closely" and "to glance at hastily; skim"). Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as "wrong," the "right" meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically. It's not always possible to predict when something will be condemned: While the "skim" sense of peruse is often criticized, the "skim" sense of scan—the main current sense—is rarely noticed, even though it's a recent development, quite different from the meaning the word had for centuries.

In the case of literally, the "right" meaning is said to be "exactly as described; in a literal way," because that's what the base word literal is supposed to mean. In fact, the literalmeaning of literal would be something like "according to the letter," but it's almost never used this way. "He copied the manuscript literally" would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are "literally on fire," how surprised can we be?

The trouble with usage criticism of the sort leveled at literally is that it's typically uneven: Parallel uses are frequent and usually pass unnoticed. For every peruse there's a scan (see my essays on these terms here and here); for every hopefully there's a clearly; and for every literally there's a really: Or did you expect people to complain when really is used to emphasize things that are not "real"? When Meg, in Little Women, moaned that "It's been such a dismal day I'm really dying for some amusement," she wasn't the one dying.

The one sensible criticism that can be made about the intensive use of literally is that it can often lead to confusing or silly-sounding results. In this case, the answer is simple: Don't write silly-soundingly. Some usage books even bother to make this point about literally. Then again, most usage advice could be reduced to one simple instruction: "Be clear." But that would be the end of a publishing category. Ω

[Jesse Sheidlower was Principal North American Editor (1999-2005) at the Oxford English Dictionary; since 2005 he has been an editor-at-large, focusing on North American usage. He received an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Chicago and did graduate work at Cambridge University in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic.]

Copyright © 2005 The Slate Group, a Division of the Washington Post Company

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