It Is Literally Okay To Use Literally Figuratively. Usually.

Nov 28, 2018 by

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By Edgar B. Herwick III –

My editor here in the WGBH Newsroom, Aaron Schachter, is a little bit of a curmudgeon. And in recent weeks he’s had a linguistic bee in his bonnet that he will not let go.

“I am literally going crazy,” said Schachter, tongue firmly in cheek. “The word literally is just used now all the time, willy nilly —incorrectly, I think. I don’t get it. [It] just seems to be the shiny new object of American English. What’s going on?”

To find out what exactly is going on, I turned to word guru Peter Sokolowsi, editor-at-large for the Springfield-based dictionary Merriam Webster.

“This sense of literally, of course, is not the original sense of literally,” he said. “Literal means — in its Latin sense — ‘by the letter.’”

What gets Schachter’s haunches up is when literally is used in a more figurative sense, for emphasis. And that usage is by no means shiny and new.

“This figurative sense of ‘literally’ — meaning the emphatic sense of literally — goes back to the mid-1700s,” said Sokolowski.

Dickens used it like this. So did Mark Twain. And its figurative use in the more ironic or hyperbolic sense — think, “It was literally the worst moment of my life” — has been popular since the early 20th century. That Aaron feels like it’s suddenly everywhere is thanks to something called “recency illusion.”

“There’s a linguist at Stanford named Arnold Zwicky who came up with this term,” explained Sokolowski. “And, really, what it does is emphasizes this idea of selective attention; the idea that something that you’ve just noticed is new. And then you notice it all the time, because your attention has been drawn to it.”

Now to be fair, Schachter is not alone here. Sokolowski said he regularly hears from grammar sticklers of all stripes about the figurative and hyperbolic use of the word literally.

“The word literally, the way that it is criticized, is maybe the victim of a double standard here,” he said.

Sokolowski points out that we use plenty of other words in a figurative or hyperbolic way, to far less controversy.

“Very comes from the French word vrai — meaning true,” said Sokolowski. “Another one is the word actually, which originally meant “in act or in fact.” The same is true of the word really. We don’t really use really to mean “in reality.”

Sokolowski says it’s by no means incorrect to use these words figuratively, but he does caution against thoughtless overuse. If you say to someone, “I am very sorry,” you are using the word ‘very’ for emphasis, but it still carries its meaning with it. You are — in fact — truly sorry. But if you say, “It was the very last thing I did before I left,” the word ‘very’ is simply a generic intensifier. And this, over time, can lead to something called semantic bleaching.

“Semantic bleaching is when the meaning of a word is bleached away, when it becomes less and less intense over time,” said Sokolowski. “The more a word like very or really or actually is used as a simple intensifier, the less it carries its own weight.”

Still, semantic bleaching is an inevitable part of the evolution of language. And as Sokolowski is fond of saying, the only constant in language is change.

“Language is like a toddler,” he said. “It bumbles around and goes where it wants to go. No one can really control its motions or its desires.”

So while Schachter might consider himself a guardian against semantic bleaching, he is also clearly a victim of recency illusion. And Sokolowski says for as long as there has been language, there have been those, like Schachter, afflicted with what he calls, “The Kids These Days Syndrome.”

“The Latin writer, Cicero, back around the time of Julius Ceasar, he wrote, ‘Oh the kids today they have the worst Latin grammar.'”

If you’re going to be a curmudgeon, that’s pretty good company.

Source: It Is Literally Okay To Use Literally Figuratively. Usually.

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