Frances Brooke literally destroyed the English language
August 15, 2013 2:01 PM   Subscribe

A sentence from her novel History of Emily Montague is the earliest OED citation for "literally" used to mean "figuratively." Frances Brooke may be responsible for negatively impacting the English language by actioning a disconnect between a word's definition and its usage. Google was called a traitor to the English language for recognizing this use. Others are suggesting that since we've totally busted the English so much we probably shouldn't even use the word "literally" anymore.
posted by ChuckRamone (141 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
negatively impacting the English language

I'll take Performatives for $200, Alex.
posted by RogerB at 2:09 PM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


Others are suggesting that since we've totally busted the English so much we probably shouldn't even use the word "literally" anymore.

Since misuse of the word is already so entrenched, that begs the question of whether or not people will be willing to follow such a suggestion.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:10 PM on August 15, 2013 [16 favorites]


My beef with Google is that they used "literally" in their definition of "literally".
posted by ogooglebar at 2:11 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


You know what this is? This is terrific!
posted by gompa at 2:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


(Descriptivists will now think I approve and prescriptivists should think I don't. Win-win.)
posted by gompa at 2:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [18 favorites]


negatively impacting the English language by actioning a disconnect

please please tell me this was for humorous effect
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


I'm not entirely convinced this is just stealth advertising from NBC to promote Rob Lowe's departure from Parks and Rec.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:17 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Will somebody let me know when 'loose' appears in the dictionary as an alternate spelling of 'lose', so I'll know to put my affairs in order?
posted by Sing Or Swim at 2:20 PM on August 15, 2013 [29 favorites]


AAUGGGGHHHHH THE PAIN
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:20 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I, for one, could care less.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:26 PM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


You know who else literally destroyed the English language?
posted by Naberius at 2:27 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Google may present dictionary entries but I'm pretty sure they don't literally write their own dictionary.
posted by GuyZero at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Strunk and White?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think this case merits actual umbrage being taken in a prescriptivist way. Using a common word to mean its opposite, especially when simply leaving out the adjective/adverb altogether would result in perfectly comprehensible locutions, is just perverse, and the confusion this use can lead to is obviously unnecessary.

Then again, perhaps the irritation some people feel at the misuse of "literally" is merely one facet of antipathy toward people of a putatively lower education/social position/intelligence asserting control over intersubjectively-constituted reality by means of a perverse trick. When some moron says "I was literally shitting bricks!", the aggrieved might feel that the moron is indirectly denigrating those people who know and appreciate the difference merely for cheap effect, and they're getting away with it. For a moment, even someone who knows the difference might be confused, precisely because they distinguish between the two uses. It causes momentary cognitive dissonance, and you don't even know if the person is being ironic. Sometimes, you never find out. [long drag on cigarette]
posted by clockzero at 2:29 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


I was wrong, above. Reading more carefully, I see that Google's second-listed definition for literally is not a definition at all, but a comment on usage. Sloppy of them, and sloppy of me not to catch it on the first read-through.
posted by ogooglebar at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2013


Easy fix. We start using figuratively to mean what literally used to mean.

e.g. "Google figuratively recognized the common usage of 'literally.'"
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm still fucking mad about decimated, don't even get me started.
posted by elizardbits at 2:31 PM on August 15, 2013 [36 favorites]


There's lots of autoantonyms that people use all the time and only rarely does it cause confusion.

I am literally not very concerned about this!
posted by aubilenon at 2:32 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


What? This many comments and no "language evolves, deal with it" point-missing yet? I'm sure a comment of that nature will appear momentarily.

I just made myself gag.
posted by Decani at 2:34 PM on August 15, 2013


I'm sure a comment ofnthat nature will appear momentarily presently.

FTFY
posted by rifflesby at 2:36 PM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


Decimated was such a fun word, until I found out everyone was using it wrong.
posted by ckape at 2:37 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well if the mods kill the comment it could be literally momentarily.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:37 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am buying a copy of that novel will keep it with me, literally eviscerating the next cocktail-party pedant that jumps all over the usage.

* steeples fingers *
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 2:37 PM on August 15, 2013


Decimated was such a fun word, until I found out everyone was using it wrong.

Just say "devastated". That's the word you were reaching for when you said "decimated", after all.
posted by The Tensor at 2:39 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


A linguistic pet peeve that I've cultivated is the use of "and myself" when listing off some people: Attending will be Larry, Moe, and myself. I'm pretty sure it is supposed to be "and me" or "and I" depending on whether the pronoun was object or subject.

I was at a theatre adaptation of Emma recently, and a character used this formation. I went and looked, and while I didn't find that specific line, Jane Austen in Emma used "and myself" in just the same way.

While this doesn't have any bearing on the prescriptivist idea of whether something is "proper english", the fact that it was being written 200+ years ago means I probably ought to reëxamine my ideas about whether it's actually common usage and I should unclench about the whole thing. Srsly.
posted by jepler at 2:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


What? This many posts and no "language evolvs, deal witn it" point-missing yet?

This is not English evolving. This is English losing its limbs, its brain, and all its other organs, ultimately degenerating into a featureless white worm, a detritivore parasite that attaches itself inside the bowel of pop culture and absorbs the endless stream of feces that flows over it.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 2:43 PM on August 15, 2013 [15 favorites]


How ironic! I was just thinking about this issue yesterday and today it's a post on Metafilter.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 2:44 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


Just wondering, is there another case in English where "adjective-ly" isn't a straightforward adverb of "adjective"?
posted by gubo at 2:45 PM on August 15, 2013


the confusion this use can lead to is obviously unnecessary

The English language has a ton of constructs that are confusing and unnecessary. That's because languages evolve based on the way people use them and modify them rather than based on what's necessary and clear. If you want a language that is designed to be clear and unambiguous, learn Lojban.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Wherefore art thou languagehat?
posted by rocket88 at 2:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


This isn't an issue of language evolving. It's an issue of some people (correctly) using hyperbole to get their message across,* but using the same hyperbole so often that it turns into a cliche.


*What is the difference between "He was as tall as a redwood" and "He was literally 10 feet tall"?
posted by muddgirl at 2:48 PM on August 15, 2013 [13 favorites]


Unlike Daniel Boone, Bill the Butcher literally had an eye like an eagle.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:54 PM on August 15, 2013


This begs the question, when was your English language last working?
posted by cmfletcher at 2:55 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


*What is the difference between "He was as tall as a redwood" and "He was literally 10 feet tall"?

About 200 feet.
posted by grog at 2:56 PM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


A linguistic pet peeve that I've cultivated is the use of "and myself" when listing off some people

This is the result of years of scolding by elementary school teachers about "and me" vs. "and I", and people just giving up and assuming that "and me" is never correct.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:57 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Slithy_Tove: "This is English losing its limbs, its brain, its organs, ultimately degenerating"

I agree. Even Francis Moore, more than quarter of a millennium ago, had the same complaint about english.

But languages do change and words do end up meaning the entire opposite of what they meant earlier.

But, as of date, the wrong usage of literally kills me (figuratively of course).
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:00 PM on August 15, 2013


Irregardless, this matter is not relevant to my interests.
posted by fuse theorem at 3:00 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


this was also an interesting article about words.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:00 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


jepler: "Things went just as I had planned, and by the end of the evening, I had completely covered Jeff, Linda, Fred, and myself with butterscotch pudding."
posted by aubilenon at 3:01 PM on August 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


well played, aubilenon.
posted by jepler at 3:02 PM on August 15, 2013


But have we literately broken the English language?
posted by Kabanos at 3:08 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


But, as of date, the wrong usage of literally kills me

Why is it wrong to use the word "literally" in a hyperbolic phrase?
posted by muddgirl at 3:10 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


jepler: "Things went just as I had planned, and by the end of the evening, I had completely covered Jeff, Linda, Fred, and myself with butterscotch pudding."

Sure, but take Jeff, Linda, and Fred out of the sentence, and "myself" works perfectly fine. In its place, "me" or "I" would sound jarring. The objectionable "myself" replaces "me" or, less often, "I." I always thought it sounded pompous, but it's really just the sound of someone who's educated enough to know that "I" may be wrong, but not educated enough to say "me" without flinching. It may also be the sound of someone keen to show off their education, as I'm sure it is in Austen.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:10 PM on August 15, 2013


please please tell me this was for humorous effect

I was trying to be funny. It's very likely I failed.
posted by ChuckRamone at 3:11 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Decimate" is too good a word to use only when it's literally applicable. How often is exactly one-tenth of something destroyed, anyway?

"The lawnmower blade decimated my toes."
"The only slightly hungry cockerspaniel decimated the package of hot dogs."
"Moths decimated my stash of socks, so now I have one sock that doesn't match any of the others."
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:12 PM on August 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


jepler: "A linguistic pet peeve that I've cultivated is the use of "and myself" when listing off some people: Attending will be Larry, Moe, and myself. I'm pretty sure it is supposed to be "and me" or "and I" depending on whether the pronoun was object or subject.

I was at a theatre adaptation of Emma recently, and a character used this formation. I went and looked, and while I didn't find that specific line, Jane Austen in Emma used "and myself" in just the same way.
"

At least three times:

And there will be the two Gilberts, young Cox, my father, and myself, besides Mr. Knightley

Pass us, if you please, Mr. Churchill. Pass Mr. E., Knightley, Jane, and myself.

I have escaped; and that I should escape, may be a matter of grateful wonder to you and myself.
posted by jgaiser at 3:13 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


We ruined this word by loving it too much. I for one am pleased by what we have wrought.
posted by emperor.seamus at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


I see this usage as a reverse litotes or hyperbole as others have said. But only to those consciously using it that way.
posted by ChuckRamone at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2013


I blame the US's moronic refusal to accept the metric system, tbh.
posted by elizardbits at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


"The only slightly hungry cockerspaniel decimated the package of hot dogs."

No, they were kosher hot dogs! They were only reduced by 1/7th! The package was only septimated!
posted by muddgirl at 3:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


>*What is the difference between "He was as tall as a redwood" and "He was literally 10 feet tall"?<

Maybe 100 feet or so?
posted by twidget at 3:15 PM on August 15, 2013


He is literally as tall as a redwood that is 6'2" tall!
posted by aubilenon at 3:17 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I use "literally" to mean "figuratively" all the time (literally). No one has any trouble figuring out what I mean.

Pet peeves are pet peeves. The ramifications of this linguistic development are few.

There's lots of autoantonyms that people use all the time and only rarely does it cause confusion.

Exactly. See: downhill.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:17 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


> This is English losing its limbs, its brain, and all its other organs, ultimately degenerating

It's not that I deny that this can happen to a language at all. But people have been predicting the degeneration of English for (literally-)literally centuries, so if you're going to make that bold prediction you've got to come at us with more than "some people don't use one particular word in the manner I deem proper."
posted by savetheclocktower at 3:18 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess if I had said, "What is the literal difference between 'He was as tall as a redwood' and 'He was literally 10 feet tall?'" y'all would know that I really meant "What is the figurative difference..?"

Except we recognize that, in this case, I am not using the word "literal" in a hyperbolic sense, so the meaning is not reversed. Which means that language is working exactly as it should to convey meaning.
posted by muddgirl at 3:21 PM on August 15, 2013


Decimated was such a fun word, until I found out everyone was using it wrong.

Just say "devastated". That's the word you were reaching for when you said "decimated", after all.


Not really. When people say "decimated" they usually mean "decimated," i.e. almost all of the objects were destroyed (i.e. about 90%), whether or not it was actually 90% or 95% or 99%. (Oops, I guess decimated really means 10% were destroyed ... oh well.)

Anyway, destroyed, exterminated, eradicated are better synonyms than devastated (which is not horrible).
posted by mrgrimm at 3:22 PM on August 15, 2013


This post made me literally (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻)
posted by klue at 3:25 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


"laid waste to" is probably the best synonym but it's much longer and clunkier, and if we stopped using decimate and used "laid waste to" instead, the german translation of "decimate" would eventually end up on some Facebook listmeme of "12 Foreign Words We Can't Translate to English" and then my head would figuratively explode.
posted by muddgirl at 3:28 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Devastate" isn't horrible? The synonyms are "ravage," "destroy," "ruin," "desolate," "waste," and "havoc."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:32 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, I fucking love it when English goes downhill. As a non-native English speaker, I'm walking uphill. This way we can all meet mid-hill.
posted by klue at 3:41 PM on August 15, 2013 [8 favorites]


This point is moot.

(But does that mean we table the discussion or table the discussion?)
posted by MikeKD at 3:42 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Devastate" isn't horrible? The synonyms are "ravage," "destroy," "ruin," "desolate," "waste," and "havoc."

How about "raze." You know, the antonym of "raise."
posted by griphus at 3:45 PM on August 15, 2013


He poured over the newly-revised dictionary, which sat on an elaborate rod iron stand. "Wa-la! I'll never forget where I was on this faithful night!" he said. Then he closed the dictionary and put it in a draw.
posted by usonian at 3:53 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Where's the flammable-inflammable outrage? Where's the outrage over "dusting my room" vs "dusting the cake with cocoa"?
posted by GuyZero at 3:59 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


klue but this is exactly the sort of thing that makes English such a terrible (terrific?), awful (awesome?) language to learn.
posted by ckape at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


The ground was literally covered in trash, is all I'm sayin'.
posted by maxwelton at 4:14 PM on August 15, 2013


It occurs to me just now that the double-use of "literally" is kind of the opposite of last decade's overuse of "like" - a word which is supposed to mean "analogous to" but which in practice is also an amplification of the literalness of the statement.
posted by Apropos of Something at 4:28 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is bad. Bad to the bone!

Fuckin A!
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:28 PM on August 15, 2013


*What is the difference between "He was as tall as a redwood" and "He was literally 10 feet tall"?

Not enough information. 10 is exact ,which suggests literally is meant to be exact. Which could be the case, if we're talking Bigfoot. The redwood guy, is he in a science fiction setting? That one too could be taken literally.

I use "literally" to mean "figuratively" all the time (literally). No one has any trouble figuring out what I mean.

But that's just it- they have to figure it out. If they cherish the distinction between the two words, you're making them stop and wonder, even if only briefly, what you're getting at. Whether, so to speak, it's them or if it's you. Clearly it's you, but they've wasted time in figuring this out, and you've lost a bit of credibility. So why do it?

My general take - sure, languages change, and far be it from me (not I) to be the last to hold on to outdated norms. But the distinction between "figuratively" and "literally" is useful, very useful, and worth keeping. Clearly there are many who agree with me. And insofar as the writer's job is to get information across clearly, being mindful of this distinction is important. It's not a question of right or wrong usage, or prescriptive or descriptive - it's a question of which usages cause the most readers the least trouble. If a writer is indifferent to diction and syntax, he's doing a half-assed job.

Actually, I fucking love it when English goes downhill. As a non-native English speaker, I'm walking uphill. This way we can all meet mid-hill.

I'm guessing you're Chinese. If I ever take up your language, and perhaps I will one day, I hope eventually to speak it as well as a hilltop native. It's too wonderful a language to settle for anything less.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:38 PM on August 15, 2013


"Decimate" is too good a word to use only when it's literally applicable. How often is exactly one-tenth of something destroyed, anyway?

Technically, decimate is more than just destroying one-tenth of something. It means that you had a group that committed some crime, and rather than killing everyone, you selected one in ten by lottery and executed them. The word exists to refer to the brutality of execution by lottery, and the exact proportion isn't the most significant part about it.

So really, your cocker spaniel decimating a package of hot dogs doesn't really make sense even if only one-tenth were eaten.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:39 PM on August 15, 2013


Those hot dogs failed me, so I threw them to Sparky. Who cares which one got eaten?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:41 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


If they cherish the distinction between the two words, you're making them stop and wonder, even if only briefly, what you're getting at.

Isn't this the exact point of hyperbole in the first place? Making the listener wonder, if only for a second "Gosh, WAS the trout he caught in the lake last week the size of a shark?" Again, what's the difference between an acceptable hyperbole "The trout was the size of a shark!" and an unacceptable hyperbole, "The trout was literally the size of a shark!"

and the exact proportion isn't the most significant part about it

Except that the proportion is right there in the word, and is the feature that most pedants focus on.
posted by muddgirl at 4:41 PM on August 15, 2013


I've started just dismissing the "English is dying because of how people use 'literally'!" hand-wringers as essentially language creationists and it's made me a lot happier.
posted by invitapriore at 4:45 PM on August 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


I used to play the "literally" pedant game until I learned more about its long time "abuse" and unclenched. How often does one need to use the word in its original meaning? Literally never. Don't worry though, there are plenty of other markers you can use to make yourself feel smarter than someone else.
posted by lordaych at 4:47 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


BUT I DON'T WANT TO UNDERSTAND SPEECH FROM CONTEXT - Lazy McPedanterson
posted by lordaych at 4:53 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


The enormity of this mis-usage is appalling.
posted by mr vino at 5:04 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, now that we've got that all settled, hopefully we can all agree that 'feel' is not a goddamned noun, especially not in the plural. "I have feels?" Really? Are you a baby robot who does not speak much english? Are you a fucking lolcat? No? Then stop already! Thanks!
posted by hap_hazard at 5:06 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Are you a fucking lolcat? No? Then stop already! Thanks!

bro, I know that feel.
posted by GuyZero at 5:08 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


But the distinction between "figuratively" and "literally" is useful, very useful, and worth keeping.

I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:12 PM on August 15, 2013


GuyZero-

I am going to assume you're referring to that feel which does not so much break my rule as prove that one cannot be pedantic about grammar on the internet without also being wrong. QID!
posted by hap_hazard at 5:13 PM on August 15, 2013


If we were only allowed to use words to mean exactly what they mean, life would literally be very boring.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:14 PM on August 15, 2013


Up until this comment, this thread contained literally zero references to Joe Biden. Was that deliberate?
posted by maudlin at 5:16 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't seen the fucking lolcats. Link?

(No, please, don't.)

The best thing is: English doesn't care. English will do as she - as they, as we - please. Quite literally.

For some really spot-on delightful abuse of English (by real English people, speaking Sarf Lunnon), see how many grammar rules are broken in this one-minute clip from UK TV show Phoneshop.
posted by Devonian at 5:18 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


we can all agree that 'feel' is not a goddamned noun

I haven't heard people do this.

The thing that drives me bonkers* is when people use "fail" to mean "failure". I blame failblog for this, and I am pretty angry at the whole cheezburger network as a result.

* figuratively, of course
posted by aubilenon at 5:22 PM on August 15, 2013


Well, now that we've got that all settled, hopefully we can all agree that 'feel' is not a goddamned noun,

Has þou na force in þi fete, ne fele of þi-selfe? - Wars of Alexander, about 1450.

Feel has been a noun since Christopher Columbus was mewling and puking.
posted by Thing at 5:22 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am pretty angry at the whole cheezburger network as a result.

Think about the world you live in and how sentence makes any sense at all and then ask if you are bonkers or if it is the whole world that has become bonkers.
posted by GuyZero at 5:24 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Irregardless



SCREAM SCREAM SCREAM SCREAM SCREAM


I delight in using the word "decimate" at work, when 10% of the day staff calls in sick. It conveys the mathematical reality and the implied catastrophe seems proportionate with the way the supervisors flip out like it is (literally) the most harrowing challenge they have ever faced.
posted by louche mustachio at 5:24 PM on August 15, 2013


Are you a baby robot who does not speak much english? Are you a fucking lolcat?

MAYBE I AM
posted by elizardbits at 5:25 PM on August 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


I am pretty angry at the whole cheezburger network as a result.

Think about the world you live in and how sentence makes any sense at all and then ask if you are bonkers or if it is the whole world that has become bonkers



I just checked and the answer is "both a) and b)."
posted by louche mustachio at 5:25 PM on August 15, 2013


Are you a baby robot who does not speak much english? Are you a fucking lolcat?

Are you a baby robot lolcat?


WILL YOU COME LIVE AT MY HOUSE PLEASE?
posted by louche mustachio at 5:27 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


god damnit, all the best comments have been taken.
posted by echocollate at 5:28 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


if language is a weapon then people that care about 'literally' are ren faire medieval combat reenactors.

(twitter is oak ridge in this metaphor)
posted by Ictus at 5:40 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Kirk was literally beside himself when the transporter malfunctioned.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:50 PM on August 15, 2013 [28 favorites]


Listening to prescriptivists whine futilely is one of my very favorite things. Language is what it is, not what you want to use as a in-group marker for your superiority.
posted by tavella at 5:59 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

I would say that the conventional use of the word literally is most important when used in conjunction with a term that is often use hyperbolically or metaphorically.

E.g., I own literally a ton of comic books. I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face. He literally lives in a closet.
posted by aubilenon at 5:59 PM on August 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Biff Tannen has literally a shit-ton of problems.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:01 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Linguistic prescriptivists howl in anger at the misuse of a word in a confusing language that has no real rules other than that the speakers of that language can generally understand each other. Descriptivists yawn.
posted by runcibleshaw at 6:10 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Impacted to mean affected is literally my biggest pet peeve - and I've so lost the battle so now I just feel my feels and try to let it go.

Honestly, I think one of the most fun aspects of English is that it is so ripe for alteration in search of conveying an accurate internal state. I have specific sets of grammar I use for when I'm feeling casual and/or exhausted and/or silly, including the deliberate spelling errors that I'm sure drive people up the wall. OMG, liek ttly, rite? I use "like" in paragraphs with a specific time of information communication in place, where the quotes are paraphrases and exaggerations. (He was like, "NO WAI" and I was like, "I KNOW" and he was like, "Then what'd you do?" and I was like, "My head just went BOOM, explode, and I don't think we're friends anymore."). I can be totally pedantic about spelling, because when I use teh it means something, damnit.

It seems like a lot of what annoys people about the active use of language are the shibboleths for different communities. "Feels" as in "I have all the feels," comes from a specific type of online community (fan where it overlaps with social justice, largely) where there are a variety of short-hand phrases which communicate a lot of meta-information through the mangling of language (LOLcats are another example of this). As always, it's language in service of a community rather than language as an unchanging edifice, and personally I adore language in use - but I can completely understand the pet peevishness.

I mean... impacted. REALLY???
posted by Deoridhe at 6:14 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Linguistic prescriptivists howl in anger [...] Descriptivists yawn.

Subscriptivists underwrite. Conscriptivists use inductive reasoning. Y'know, to induct conscripts, geddit? Okay, I'm sorry.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:19 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cleave.
posted by tzikeh at 6:33 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Loose" may be used as a verb, meaning to set something free, usually an animal. As a narrow synonym for "lose," it's redundant; but you may mean to suggest that the item you've lost is the sort that might try to eat anyone who finds it.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:35 PM on August 15, 2013


Language is what it is, not what you want to use as a in-group marker for your superiority.

When I teach basic composition, I feel obligated teach the "prescriptive" stuff, if only because many people still need to navigate the shibboleths and markers embedded in the practice of language. I get the sense that a lot of us are politically on the side of the descriptivists, but practice a sort of "self-prescriptivism." I'd also note that pretty much any "style" or mode of English works as a set of shibboleths in some context or other.

Practically, the educationally privileged are neither descriptivists nor prescriptivists. Instead, the most privileged form of language use in English is founded on the ability to parse the contradictions of usage and savvily practice code-switching without really thinking about it, something that can provide a set of tools for people who need them but also provides tools of cultural appropriation used by the privileged. By the time you're having the "prescriptivist vs. descriptivist" debate, you're already capable of gaming the distinction.
posted by kewb at 6:39 PM on August 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Prescriptivists whose prescriptions are followed are usually called "editors." They are not so often the subject of internet yelling.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:40 PM on August 15, 2013


If I wanted to use literally to indicate "this sounds like a hyperbole, but isn't," I'd probably play with the word order.

"I own a ton of comic books. Literally!" Moving it to the end has a satisfying tension-release aspect that signals the intended meaning.

Also, most of the time we over-signal, so most people would probably say something like "I own literally a ton of comic books. I know, I weighed them!"
posted by muddgirl at 6:45 PM on August 15, 2013


Word misuse is literally a catastrophe, figuratively speaking.
posted by painquale at 6:49 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

I literally told those kids to get off my lawn.

(this is a joke, of course, but also an answer to the challenge. "get off my lawn" is so often used metaphorically that, if one actually says it, one is apt not to be taken literally (which locution I believe is still current))
posted by mr vino at 6:50 PM on August 15, 2013


"Literally" as an intensifier might be one of those things that works better in speech than in text, as with most intensifiers. But yeah, it's kid of silly to fight against the transformation of words into intensifiers, not least because English speakers of all varieties love intensifiers with the, uh, intensity of the heat of a thousand suns. Literally!

It's happened to "precious," "wicked," "terribly," and even "dead." It happened to "awful" and "awfully" so long ago that even the prescriptivists have stopped caring in those cases. To speak prescriptively, I kind of like the breakdown of the long-enforced barriers between the spoken language and the written one. I've always preferred uses of language that brings in and highlights affect to those that try to exclude it in the name of some sterile notion of "correctness."
posted by kewb at 6:55 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I own a metric ton of comic books. Literally! And I don't mean 'literally' figuratively. I honestly mean that if you took all my comic books together and put them on a zoo-grade scale their total weight would come out to over a thousand kilograms. No, seriously, I'm not being hyperbolic here. Look, each comic book weighs around one-hundred grams, which means you get ten to a kilogram or ten-thousand to a metric ton. I do in fact own over ten-thousand comic books."
posted by Pyry at 6:57 PM on August 15, 2013


Watching the English language ravelling is quite interesting.
posted by mountmccabe at 7:02 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


LogicalDash: "Prescriptivists whose prescriptions are followed are usually called "editors." They are not so often the subject of internet yelling."

Right, and this is where the mewling along the lines of "DESCRIPTIVISTS JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN" is shown up to be the idiocy that it is, since I don't know anyone who acknowledges the dynamic nature of usage who doesn't also think that style guides are useful and necessary. They just don't reflect any sort of universal truths about correctness.
posted by invitapriore at 7:06 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not quite sure how I feel about this.
posted by unliteral at 8:06 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


This usage pattern literally is not my cup of tea.
posted by aubilenon at 8:20 PM on August 15, 2013


I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.
OK:

"The word 'literally' literally means 'by or with regard to letters'."
posted by Flunkie at 9:17 PM on August 15, 2013


Speaking of destroying the English language, here's what "begging the question" actually means.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:37 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


This does make me feel much better about all the surveys showing that most Americans believe the Bible is "literally" true. A lot of people think "literally" means "like in literature"– that is, emotionally but not factually true– so when they say the Bible is "literally" true, they mean its a bunch of inspiring stories, but not a description of what happened.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:49 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do a pretty good job of using literally and figuratively correctly, though I do slip up when excited and I don't know why. Most likely because I learned the incorrect usage first. But as I have trained myself out of the incorrect usage, I became conscious of how wrong the misuse sounds. Maybe that's why the use is so frowned upon; once you know the difference, you can't unheard it.

But I can't criticism those that misuse literally too much; I can't untrained myself from saying "whiles" regardless of how I try, and sometimes a whilest slips out. I have no idea where that verbal anomaly came from, but I can't kick it. Until I do, please feel free to misuse language however you please.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:28 PM on August 15, 2013


I think this case merits actual umbrage being taken in a prescriptivist way. Using a common word to mean its opposite, especially when simply leaving out the adjective/adverb altogether would result in perfectly comprehensible locutions, is just perverse, and the confusion this use can lead to is obviously unnecessary.

Then again, perhaps the irritation some people feel at the misuse of "literally" is merely one facet of antipathy toward people of a putatively lower education/social position/intelligence asserting control over intersubjectively-constituted reality by means of a perverse trick. When some moron says "I was literally shitting bricks!", the aggrieved might feel that the moron is indirectly denigrating those people who know and appreciate the difference merely for cheap effect, and they're getting away with it. For a moment, even someone who knows the difference might be confused, precisely because they distinguish between the two uses. It causes momentary cognitive dissonance, and you don't even know if the person is being ironic. Sometimes, you never find out. [long drag on cigarette]


I praise you with all my might Missus, or, possibly, Sir.
posted by converge at 12:24 AM on August 16, 2013


The deleterious consequences of this supposedly odious development are negligible indeed.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:55 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this mostly bugs me from an "English teacher" perspective, that the context I encounter this word most is in describing writing and drawing a distinction between figurative language-- the world of hyperbole, metonymy, and other tropes-- and literal, exacting language, where denotation counts most. So it just feels wrong to use a word that means "ok now I'm being very real and precise and consciously want to tell you that that words I am about to say are not meant to be interpreted figuratively" to mean "figurative."

So it's as if I have a bunch of kids come into class thinking that a noun is a verb, and vice-versa, which has practical problems beyond just kids these days using wet to mean hot which used to mean cool.
posted by otterpop at 6:44 AM on August 16, 2013


"There is always the one right word; use it, despite its foul or merely ludicrous associations."
-- Dylan Thomas
posted by wenestvedt at 7:11 AM on August 16, 2013


It's easy.

"It literally kills me" = "It literally figuratively kills me".
posted by Drexen at 7:51 AM on August 16, 2013


You know what is destroying online discourse? People leaning on logical fallacies, "proper" grammar and usage, and other supposed rules instead of making a good faith effort to understand one another. Disagree all you want, but explain your disagreement instead of attacking choice of words or positing an appeal to authority foul or what have you. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. You don't like 'literally' in the centuries-old alternative emphatic usage? Don't use it.
posted by Mister_A at 8:40 AM on August 16, 2013


I challenge you to use "literally" "correctly" in a manner in which the word is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

Tom handed me the paper as he opened his mouth to reveal the misshapen stump that was all that remained of his tongue. 'I am literally speechless.'

Just say "devastated". That's the word you were reaching for when you said "decimated", after all.

Devastated is best used for pronouncements of devas if you're a true prescriptivist.
posted by ersatz at 8:42 AM on August 16, 2013


The one I really fail to get the use of is the difference between Less and Fewer. Sure, I understand how they are both supposed to be used, but I've never come across a sentence in which the incorrect use had changed the meaning of the sentence. Made it sound a little ugly, yes, but not changed the meaning.

Am I wrong? Is there such an example?
posted by ciderwoman at 8:56 AM on August 16, 2013


I don't understand how anyone is reading "literally" as literally meaning "figuratively" in the usages cited here. It's an intensifier for a figurative expression, yes, but I don't think anyone is actually using it as a marker to indicate that the verb phrase it modifies is meant to be understood figuratively, since the content of the verb phrase itself usually accomplishes that pretty handily.
posted by invitapriore at 9:25 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


ciderwoman: Here's the example that springs to mind. "I have less water" VS "I have fewer water." And "I have fewer dollars" VS "I have less dollars". It seems like "less" works well to replace "fewer", but not the other way around.

MrGrimm: ThatFuzzyBastard had a good example. If everyone understood the actual definition of "literally", the meaning of the question "Do you believe all the stories in the Bible are literally true?" would be obvious. If a large proportion of the population thinks "literal" means "figurative", it breaks down communication.

There is such a thing as contranyms (or auto-antonyms), but there's a good reason why there are only a few of them.
posted by Sleeper at 9:26 AM on August 16, 2013


The more numerous contranyms become, the fewer clarity there is.
posted by Sleeper at 9:27 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's funny how the English language has waited literally centuries for you to get on the scene to complain about it before starting to break down into an incomprehensible stew.
posted by invitapriore at 9:30 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sleeper: "Now that I'm unemployed, I have less responsibilities, and less decisions to make."
posted by rifflesby at 9:39 AM on August 16, 2013


The "decimation" derail reminds me of one of my favorite points about the Romans made by Larry Gonick in his Cartoon History series: how many other languages even have a word for "killed every tenth person?"
posted by COBRA! at 9:49 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not that English has suddenly started to break down into an incomprehensible stew. Instead, there's (relatively suddenly) large numbers of literate people who understand the accepted rules of the language, and that has been having an effect on the "mutation rate" of the English language.

I'm no expert, but I think that the rate of change of English has slowed over the centuries. We can understand English documents written 300 years ago pretty well today, but English documents written over the same span of time, ~1100 to 1400, have more differences between them because English mutated from "Old English" to "Middle English" to the beginnings of modern English over that time.

The slowing rate of change is a good thing, and I think it's due to the fact that people have begun to agree upon standards of spelling and grammar and definitions and other usage.

My prediction is that the best English literature of today will be more easily comprehensible to readers of 2313 than Shakespeare is to us.

(If anyone thinks that's wrong, I'd like to learn why. No snark, just curious.)
posted by Sleeper at 9:54 AM on August 16, 2013


Thanks Sleeper, but while both those examples are ugly, the meaning hasn't been changed in either of them.
posted by ciderwoman at 9:59 AM on August 16, 2013


I should have said I was just saying those things to explore the idea. I think you're right, it doesn't change the meaning. Just the effect.
posted by Sleeper at 11:02 AM on August 16, 2013


The "decimation" derail reminds me of one of my favorite points about the Romans made by Larry Gonick in his Cartoon History series: how many other languages even have a word for "killed every tenth person?"

That's because it meant tithe first, which, not surprisingly, means give 1/10th of your wealth to the church.

"If we look to the dictionaries of this time period the evidence suggests that this tithing sense of decimate was just as common, if not more so, as the sense of killing or punishing one of every ten. The first English dictionary to record the word was Thomas Blount’s magnificently titled Glossographia, published in 1656, which defines decimate as “to take the tenth, to gather the Tyth”, with no mention made of killing anyone, soldiers or otherwise. In Elisha Coles’ An English Dictionary, published some twenty years later, it is defined as both ‘to tythe or take the tent’ and ‘also punishing every tenth man’. These are the only two dictionaries of the 17th century to define decimate (which is not terribly surprising, as there were very few such reference works at the time).

"... Unfortunately for the etymological purists, decimate comes from the Medieval Latin word decimatus, which means ‘to tithe’. The word was then assigned retrospectively to the Roman practice of punishing every tenth soldier."

posted by mrgrimm at 2:38 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately for the etymological purists, decimate comes from...

When you dig deep enough, pretty much everything winds up being unfortunate for the etymologist purists.
posted by aubilenon at 3:02 PM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


If a large proportion of the population thinks "literal" means "figurative", it breaks down communication.

As I implied before, communication rarely hinges on the strict definition of a single word. In survey situations like the example, researchers routinely ask essentially the same question in different ways, to tease out potential biases like a misunderstood word.

Furthermore, if we capture the various meanings of the word "literally" in the dictionary, researchers would be more aware of the differences and might avoid using the word in unclear situations where the answer hinges on that fact. By fighting against the inclusion of real-world word use in the dictionary, people may actually be causing more breakdowns in communication, not fewer.
posted by muddgirl at 3:19 PM on August 16, 2013


one of my favorite phrases is 'i literally died...' i use it so often in part because, as with my habit of wearing plaid shirts with plaid shorts, it bothers only the kind of person who would bother to be bothered by that kind of thing. i consider it a humanitarian action; i am indifferent to any resentment directed at me over it, but am relieved that someone's preoccupation with it occupies space and time enough to perhaps save someone else from that person's judgment and exasperation. i am a walking honeypot for rage, literally a healing force.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 4:04 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone help it? Next to the changing flow of the English language, it seemed the meaning of the word "literally" was fast. The figurative use of "literally" needs no apology. The original meaning will wear. Must we cleave the two meanings of "literally"? I've literally never been confused by whether someone is using the word literally or figuratively; the meaning is always transparent.
posted by straight at 5:06 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Must we cleave the two meanings of "literally"?

I see what you did there.
posted by ersatz at 3:07 AM on August 17, 2013


Apologies if I missed this link, but the fight is literally over.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:45 AM on August 24, 2013


I swear I've seen the "2. (adj.) Figuratively" definition in a dictionary from the 1800s (as examples from the above link ^^^ attest ... I wish I could remember the name of the dictionary ... it was multi-volume. My friend still has them I think ...)
posted by mrgrimm at 9:07 AM on August 26, 2013


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