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“Pawnee is literally the best town in the country.”
April 22, 2014 5:54 AM   Subscribe

A Browser Extension That Replaces "Literally" With "Figuratively". Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results. Previously.
posted by Fizz (119 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I figuratively can't imagine that doing more good than harm.
posted by pipeski at 6:03 AM on April 22 [10 favorites]


I thought we were giving up this fight.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 6:03 AM on April 22 [6 favorites]


But now we don't have to! We can just pretend we won, and everyone will be happy! Like the Civil War, except everyone will be happy!
posted by Etrigan at 6:05 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


It makes this a lot more confusing.
posted by holmesian at 6:05 AM on April 22


Not to imply that it's confusing in the first place.
posted by holmesian at 6:06 AM on April 22


I thought we were giving up this fight.

No. Let your anger flow.

It's pretty trivial though, compared to correcting people who use "solipsism" when they mean "selfishness"
posted by thelonius at 6:13 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


What's this all about? An extension that replaces "Figuratively" with "Figuratively"?
posted by Wolfdog at 6:23 AM on April 22 [11 favorites]


Its a good idea, but its not going to change much.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:23 AM on April 22


This begs the question.
posted by notyou at 6:23 AM on April 22 [18 favorites]


Usually I don't like these goofy extensions, but this is the exception that proves the rule.
posted by Beardman at 6:24 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Usually I don't like these goofy extensions

Literally my favourite extension.
posted by Fizz at 6:27 AM on April 22


Not to downplay the death of language and culture and all we hold dear, but isn't this phenomenon just figurative usage of the word 'literal'?
posted by nobody at 6:30 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Drinking methanol will literally kill you.

Sayonora pedants!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:30 AM on April 22 [11 favorites]


For all intensive purposes, this is pretty cool irregardless.
posted by swift at 6:30 AM on April 22 [21 favorites]


Let's not forget another xkcd comic which just makes things more interesting. It's available as a Chrome plugin.
posted by cyberscythe at 6:34 AM on April 22 [5 favorites]


I'm not taking this for granite & downloading now. If you don't, well, you're just cutting off your nose despite your face.
posted by pointystick at 6:34 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


Someone should of written this extension years ago so I could of installed it when I would of had admin privileges.
posted by plastic_animals at 6:35 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Sucha great extension, like it alot. To who should I send money?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:36 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


It doesn't work on documents from the 1760s which is literally some if the first uses of literally to mean figuratively.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:40 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


It doesn't work on documents from the 1760s which is literally some if the first uses of literally to mean figuratively.

You can simply burn those, you don't need an extension for it.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:44 AM on April 22 [7 favorites]


I don't understand how this mass upset over the word "literally" even became a thing. It's like something that a group of people latched on to desperately around 2005 to feel superior about. The people who say stuff like "I literally floated above the room" aren't even being ignorant, they're just employing a kind of comic exaggeration. And it feels nice to say. The word "literally" just has a nice mouthfeel to it in a bunch of sentences. I use it frequently to piss people off. Over-enunciate it too. I lit-erally don't give a fuck.
posted by naju at 6:45 AM on April 22 [14 favorites]


holmesian: "It makes this a lot more confusing."

But that has this: "See literally defined for kids"

We're literally all kids in this one.
posted by chavenet at 6:50 AM on April 22


Urge to kill...fading
posted by dry white toast at 6:53 AM on April 22


I don't understand how this mass upset over the word "literally" even became a thing.

On the one hand, using a word to mean the opposite of what the word "actually" means is kind of annoying.

On the other hand, that's pretty much how modern English uses "awful."

Truly, Linguo is dead.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:55 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


What's wrong with being literary? Do I have to give up books for sculpture? This makes me sad.
posted by hippybear at 6:55 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


It doesn't work on documents from the 1760s which is literally some if the first uses of literally to mean figuratively.

That's an interesting perspective, very unique.
posted by thelonius at 6:56 AM on April 22


It makes this a lot more confusing.

Guys, there are comments in the online dictionary. People are getting in flame wars in the comments of an online dictionary.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:58 AM on April 22 [9 favorites]


I am always* amused by the fights those in tech choose to take on.


*And by this I of course mean "frequently".
posted by tommasz at 6:59 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


This new usage of "literally" that we're all supposed to stop being incensed by... it's really just emphasis, right? So instead of replacing "literally" with "figuratively", this extension should replace it with "fuckin'".
posted by gurple at 7:01 AM on April 22 [28 favorites]


Still no cure for cancer.
posted by briank at 7:03 AM on April 22


"Literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". It is being used for emphasis, to effectively mean something like "basically" or "might as well" or "would just as well".
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:07 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


Cleans web pages in one foul swoop. What's not to lurv?
posted by pjm at 7:07 AM on April 22


Is there some way I can get this installed in the cloud?
posted by straight at 7:11 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


straight, you know as well as I do that you can't install browser extensions in your butt. Believe me, I've tried.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:17 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


If it wasn't so frustrating, it would be fun to study the creation of these language peeves, because they really aren't consistent or rational, and they can blow up seemingly overnight. Out of all of the potential things to get angry and superior about, people latch on to only a few. Now that we have the internet and tools to mine it for data, I wonder if we could do some interesting studies on how these ideas spread. What's the next big peeve?

"Literally" has been used as an intensifier for like literally ever, but it's a relatively recent peeve. I don't know for sure, but I think that the belief that the intensifier usage is the same as saying "figuratively" is even more recent. What's really interesting about the "figuratively" interpretation is that we can replace "literally" with "figuratively" and see that it actually doesn't work a lot of the time.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:18 AM on April 22 [8 favorites]


On the one hand, using a word to mean the opposite of what the word "actually" means is kind of annoying.

If only there were some way to cleave the two meanings, it might hold up our understanding.
posted by straight at 7:18 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


So much of internet culture just seems to be about out-pedanting others, with no other actual point. It literally makes my ass tired.
posted by aught at 7:22 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


"It doesn't work on documents from the 1760s which is figuratively some if the first uses of figuratively to mean figuratively."

What's really interesting about the "figuratively" interpretation is that we can replace "figuratively" with "figuratively"

I installed the extension before reading the comments and now the comments are quite confusing!
Also the word figuratively has lost all meaning. Also the word figuratively, which is the same as the word figuratively.

Also I kind of am assuming that some of you actually said figuratively and I don't know if all'y'all are screwing with me or not.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 7:30 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


I'm telling you right now: down with prescriptivism!
posted by clvrmnky at 7:30 AM on April 22


But no one gives a crap about the almost identical use of "really." ("You really hit that one out of the park," say). These bizarre little usage fetishes are always so random and inconsistent.
posted by yoink at 7:37 AM on April 22 [8 favorites]


Pendants have been using this issue as an escape goat since the dawn of time.
posted by reverend cuttle at 7:38 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Since time in memorial, infact.
posted by pipeski at 7:45 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


Well now that there's a browser extension I guess this is all a moo point.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:45 AM on April 22


I literally could care less about this, since I use Firefox.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:47 AM on April 22


Literal manipulation - sweeping the country!
posted by jcworth at 8:03 AM on April 22


You guys know that linguistics can model language to a sufficiently sophisticated degree that it can distinguish between novel usages and mere malapropisms, right?
posted by invitapriore at 8:22 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


This is judgemental linguistics, though
posted by thelonius at 8:24 AM on April 22


In which case, we should be judgmental against the ill-informed person who thinks that, since "literally" is being applied to figurative things, that "literally" is therefore interchangeable with "figuratively". Even if we were to agree for sake of argument that "literally" is being misused, it does not follow that the word actually means "figuratively".
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:28 AM on April 22


This is figuratively the stupidest idea ever.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:32 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Thank Heavens THAT crisis is resolved. Someone was gonna get hurt if something wasn't done.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:36 AM on April 22


You guys know that linguistics can model language to a sufficiently sophisticated degree that it can distinguish between novel usages and mere malapropisms, right?

No, it can't, really. Most of the words we use and the ways we use them were, at some point, "malapropisms." That is, there aren't many words in your lexicon that haven't undergone some shift in meaning over time and at the point that the shift began to happen the novel usage was, to most speakers, a clear "malapropism." There is simply no "sufficiently sophisticated" linguistic model that can divide the last "malapropistic" use of the word from the first "novel" use of the word.

But the thing about "literally" is that it's neither novel nor a malapropism. It's simply a word being used figuratively (the very old, very traditional figure of "hyperbole").
posted by yoink at 8:40 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Silly as it is, I much prefer this controversy to "Is rape in fantasy fiction necessary?", which is the other debate I've been reading this week. Give me literary prescriptivism any day.
posted by happyroach at 8:45 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Hyperbole is literally the worst thing ever.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:45 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


yoink: "There is simply no "sufficiently sophisticated" linguistic model that can divide the last "malapropistic" use of the word from the first "novel" use of the word. "

You're talking about the chronological boundary between the two classes, which I agree is fuzzy, but there is nonetheless a such thing as an error, and in a given context (meaning a particular point in time and a particular speech community) it is frequently possible to distinguish between errors and emerging usages. Some usages will fall into the grey zone between the two, but that doesn't mean that distinguishing between them is impossible.
posted by invitapriore at 8:53 AM on April 22


I think this usage is catachresis rather than hyperbole, because it's not exaggerating so much as mischaracterizing.
posted by clockzero at 8:58 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


there is nonetheless a such thing as an error, and in a given context (meaning a particular point in time and a particular speech community) it is frequently possible to distinguish between errors and emerging usages

It's possible, yes, but only on a pragmatic basis, not on the basis of structural, linguistic analysis. That is, if I call a car a "xylophone" that's only an "error" until such time as someone else understands what I mean by the word and ceases to object to my usage. Once two or more people are using the word "xylophone" to mean "car" then it's an idiolect. If it spreads, it simply becomes the word's new meaning. None of this is addressable at the level of linguistic analysis--it's something that you can only track historically (and which usually leaves only a patchy historic record).

But, once again, the hyperbolic use of "literally" as a non-literal intensifier is quite clearly neither novel nor an error of usage.
posted by yoink at 9:03 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


As someone who leans primarily towards descriptivism, I don't really see the point of arguing with prescriptivists. Language will ignore them, and some sort of "strong program in descriptivism" is superfluous at best and inadvertently prescriptivist at worst.

In those contexts where certain usages are frowned upon, it seems to me that descriptivism still holds as it can acknowledge those contexts. I would not use "literally" as in intensifier in an academic paper, for instance, but not because I believe in any ironclad "rule" extrinsic to usage in context.
posted by kewb at 9:03 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


I think we should table this suggestion.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:27 AM on April 22


You guys know that linguistics can model language to a sufficiently sophisticated degree that it can distinguish between novel usages and mere malapropisms, right?

This is news to me and I'm a linguist. Can you tell me more about the model you are referring to?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:36 AM on April 22


yoink is right and I should have said "linguists" rather than implying that there is some rigorous mathematical model that can spit out the answer, which I didn't really mean to state.
posted by invitapriore at 9:44 AM on April 22


The hundred soldiers in the company were literally decimated.
How many casualties?
posted by librosegretti at 9:57 AM on April 22


Anyone who reads a lot of non-fiction learns that truth is a moving target: five years ago Facebook had figuratively a billion users. As of a couple of years ago, literally a billion.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:59 AM on April 22


How many casualties?

It's impossible to say because you didn't specify if any of the hundred were wounded during the process of decimation. Nor, come to that, did you specify whether we were to regard the "literal" meaning of "decimation" as the meaning suggested by its etymological origin or the meaning it has come to have in popular usage. Of course, if you are taking "literal meaning" to mean "the etymological origin of the word" then "casualty" means "chance occurrence."

So...how many chance occurrences were there?
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on April 22


Eh, I prefer to forgo the inevitable hand-wringing over the natural evolution of human language and instead giggle over butt jokes.
posted by Mooseli at 10:08 AM on April 22


But no one gives a crap about the almost identical use of "really." ("You really hit that one out of the park," say). These bizarre little usage fetishes are always so random and inconsistent.

can't we just fucking get rid of adverbs altogether?


and adjectives.
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on April 22


When someone says that using "literally" to mean its opposite isn't a bad idea, I control my rage by pretending that they're also using "bad" to mean its opposite. Then I can reread their comment in the voice of Jackey Vinson.
posted by roystgnr at 10:19 AM on April 22


When someone says that using "literally" to mean its opposite isn't a bad idea, I control my rage

So, tell me, do you get equally outraged when people use the word "ideal" to describe something that is, in fact, real ("that chair is ideal for my purposes!")? If not, why not?
posted by yoink at 10:29 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]


I’m always amazed at the number of people who are sure that anyone who prefers the correct usage of a word is doing it only to feel superior and is looking down on them.
posted by bongo_x at 10:33 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


I'm always amazed at the number of people who insist so vehemently on the "correct" usage of a word when their arguments for what constitute "correctness" are so riddled with contradictions, absurdities and historical errors.
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]


I'm never amazed by anything.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:37 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


You know what would be really handy? A firefox extension that automagically replaces the names of various politicians with their Charles Pierce pseudonyms and keeps itself updated as new ones develop. That way I'll never have to hear about Lindsey Graham and go "Huh? Oh, right, Huckleberry Closetcase."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:44 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]


When someone says that using "literally" to mean its opposite isn't a bad idea

The fact that people use "literally" in relation to figurative concepts does not mean the word "literally" ever means "figuratively". People are not using "literally" to mean its opposite, which would be "figuratively". Instead, they are using it as an emphasizer, which is not the same thing.

That is to say, somebody who says "I am so hungry that I could literally eat a horse" is not using the word "literally" to communicate the figurativeness of the desire to eat a horse, which would already be obvious to the listener, but rather the extreme extent of his or her hunger.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:47 AM on April 22 [6 favorites]


yoink is right and I should have said "linguists" rather than implying that there is some rigorous mathematical model that can spit out the answer, which I didn't really mean to state.

I wasn't really expecting you to name a rigorously mathematical model - those aren't always relevant anyway. Putting those aside, you're still making a claim about the field of linguistics that is contrary to my experience, so I'm curious about where you're coming from. If you're claiming that linguists can distinguish novel usages from errors, then at the very least, you must be aware of some consistent, scientifically grounded criteria for making the distinction.

What are those criteria? I've never seen them. In fact, the texts I've read that address the issue make the opposite claim: that they are indistinguishable. If the term 'error' is used it is not exactly the same as the layman definition of 'error.' For example, the current text I'm reading (Ringe & Eska 2013) spills considerable ink over how errors in acquisition in a single language user can lead to large scale language change--treating all novel usages under discussion as errors, more or less. (Of course, since it's a linguistic text, the term 'error' is divorced from a lot of the ideologic underpinnings it has in lay discourse.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:51 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


My favorite example comes from a local radio reporter phoning in from the scene of a large, seasonal wildfire: "It is literally hotter than Hell here." Personally, I only start twitching when it veers into "Obamacare is literally going to kill millions of people." territory.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:57 AM on April 22


That is to say, somebody who says "I am so hungry that I could literally eat a horse" is not using the word "literally" to communicate the figurativeness of the desire to eat a horse, which would already be obvious to the listener, but rather the extreme extent of his or her hunger.

Precisely. I think what happens in people's minds is that they think something like this "Wait, that person said the word "literally" but they did not mean the word to be understood to be literally true" and then, confusing two different logical levels, they construe that as a contradiction. But there's no more of a contradiction in using the word "literally" in a figurative manner than in the use of any other word in a figurative manner. Thus to say "I could literally eat a horse" is no more contradictory or absurd than saying "I could eat a horse" when, in fact, you do not believe yourself capable of eating a horse.

"I'm utterly exhausted" is clearly untrue, or you would not have the energy to pronounce the sentence. "I'm absolutely famished," likewise, cannot be true--there is a degree of food privation you could endure beyond that point. "That's completely useless": in the vast majority of cases that will not be meant literally etc. In each of these cases--none of which would raise so much as a twitch of an eyebrow from the "literally" pedant--a word is being used to "mean" its opposite: "utterly" to "mean" "not utterly"; "absolutely" to "mean" "not absolutely"; "completely" to "mean" "not completely." And yet, all of those are just fine. But use "literally" to "mean" "not-literally" and suddenly some people's heads explode.
posted by yoink at 11:16 AM on April 22 [8 favorites]


Kutsuwamushi: "Putting those aside, you're still making a claim about the field of linguistics that is contrary to my experience, so I'm curious about where you're coming from. If you're claiming that linguists can distinguish novel usages from errors, then at the very least, you must be aware of some consistent, scientifically grounded criteria for making the distinction."

It could very well be an incorrect inference of mine, but take this discussion of errors in second language acquisition. Something like "does John can sing?" is labeled as an error here, but if it were a new usage wouldn't we expect to see it appearing as a result of transmission rather than as the result of an intuitive mistake common to learners of English as a second language? Also, wouldn't we expect to see it as a stable feature of an existing or developing creole? I'll grant that these are my intuitions and that I'm not a linguist, but so far it seems possible to me to make the distinction.
posted by invitapriore at 11:26 AM on April 22


Something like "does John can sing?" is labeled as an error

I think your take on error is a plausible description of the way that linguists approach syntax, but there's no way there's anything like a similar account of error for lexical semantics.
posted by painquale at 11:46 AM on April 22


What we need is an extension on browsers that dings whenever the user types the phrase ad hominem. The extension would explain what the phrase means and offer an "are you sure this is what you mean to say" checkbox. OH PLEASE THIS NEEDS TO BE REAL.

"AD HOMINEM ATTACK" IS NOT A FANCY WAY OF SAYING "INSULT." This is not even a question of evolving language. This is simply misunderstanding what the term means. Look it up, yo.

INSULT: You said X, which is stupid. Therefore, you are stupid.
AD HOMINEM: You are stupid, and you said X. Therefore, X is stupid.


The first is rude. The second is an argumentative fallacy. If you say something stupid and I call you a dolt for saying it, I'm not "engaging in ad hominem attacks" and therefore demonstrating a fallacious argument. I'm insulting you. Which is rude, certainly, but not fallacious reasoning. If you say a stupid-ass thing, it is logical to call you a stupid-ass for saying it.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:48 AM on April 22


I for one am enjoying the contributions of Mr. Sterling Archer to the debate.

Cherlene (to the President of San Marcos): ARE YOU...wait, which is it?
Archer: Literally.
Cherlene: ARE YOU LITERALLY INSANE?
posted by A dead Quaker at 11:49 AM on April 22 [5 favorites]


Something like "does John can sing?" is labeled as an error here, but if it were a new usage wouldn't we expect to see it appearing as a result of transmission rather than as the result of an intuitive mistake common to learners of English as a second language?

But the label "error" is necessarily pragmatic, not principled. Look at the immense changes wrought upon "English" by the coming of the French after the Norman Conquest. It is impossible to draw any hard line between the "errors" made by the early generations and the "novel usages" those "errors" eventually became. A second-language speaker's errors are obviously errors when they are rejected by the community into which the speaker moves--they cease to be errors, however, if that community adopts them and replicates them.

Consider the enormous influence of Yiddish (and German) syntactical structures on American English. Is a phrase like "Already you're quitting?" an "error"? Standard English would not put that verb at the end ("You're quitting already?"). I can imagine some recent immigrant using the phrase in, say, Australia and having their "error" "corrected." I can't imagine the same immigrant using the same phrase in, say, Manhattan being corrected. Your "error" is my "novel form"--thus has it ever been as language steadily reinvents itself throughout history.
posted by yoink at 11:57 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


That's second-language acquisition, though -- not first language acquisition, and not "errors" that native speakers make. We can't compare the two for (at least) two reasons. The first is that second language acquisition and first language acquisition are generally treated as very different mental processes, so it's comparing apples and oranges. The second is that the literature on second language acquisition is much freer with the term "error" because there is an implicit assumption about the target of the acquisition that does not hold when we start discussing adult native speakers.

Linguists actually do often distinguish between systematic variation between grammars (whether between people, dialects, or languages) and non-systematic, one-off errors that the speaker themselves might automatically correct (not due to being taught it's wrong in school or in an op-ed, but because it doesn't follow the rules of their mental grammar). The thing is, this thread is about the former, and you also seem to be talking about the former.

lso, wouldn't we expect to see it as a stable feature of an existing or developing creole?

I'm having trouble following exactly how your question follows from the rest of your comment, but I think there are two answers to this. (A) No, because a definition of "creole" is a little more strict than that. (B) Errors in second language acquisition can in fact persist and become features of a new, natively learned dialect, so there is still no consistent, scientifically grounded distinction. You're still appealing to the historical development of the novel usage, not any of its linguistic properties. We don't know all of the factors that allow a novel usage to catch on, but we do know that sociological factors and chance play a huge role. Those are not firm ground for a scientific distinction between novel usages and errors.

but so far it seems possible to me to make the distinction.

You haven't yet said what the criteria is, though.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:06 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


if any of the hundred were wounded during the process of decimation

Decimation meant the killing of one in ten, so yes, they would be wounded to death. Contemporary example. (YouTube)
posted by alasdair at 12:10 PM on April 22


No, because a definition of "creole" is a little more strict than that.

Clearly it's evolving. Don't be so prescriptivist.
posted by alasdair at 12:12 PM on April 22


Maybe if a critical mass of linguists discussing linguistics were actually using the word "creole" in that much looser way, then your joke would hit its target.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:19 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Decimation meant the killing of one in ten, so yes, they would be wounded to death.

I was referring to wounding of any of the remaining 90. The question was "how many casualties." "Casualty" refers to dead and wounded. Unless, as I say, you're applying the same criterion to "casualty" as to "decimate" to determine its meaning--in which case it means "chance occurrence" or "chance event."
posted by yoink at 12:19 PM on April 22


Kutsuwamushi: "You haven't yet said what the criteria is, though."

I was thinking exactly about the "historical development" of a language in making the distinction, which I didn't realize was entirely separate from its linguistic properties. That's probably the source of my misunderstanding.
posted by invitapriore at 12:25 PM on April 22


Anyway, speaking intuitively you could distinguish an "error" from a "novel usage" as something that diverges from the speech norms of a given community and either remains consistently niche (say, if every person who commits it ends up getting corrected) or declines over time.
posted by invitapriore at 12:31 PM on April 22


For whatever reason it bubbled up after the Vice-Presidential debates in 2012.

Of course the definition of the word "excellent" now includes "of low quality; inauthentic" and "bullsh*t".

The use of "literally" to mean figuratively is an excellent practice.
posted by petebest at 12:33 PM on April 22


Is there an extension that will have this effect on my partner?
posted by mudpuppie at 12:49 PM on April 22


The use of "literally" to mean figuratively

As has been pointed out multiple times above, this is something that nobody does. Nobody who says "I could literally eat a horse" wants you to understand them to mean "I could figuratively eat a horse." Substituting the word "figuratively" there would not convey the same meaning, or even a close approximation of the meaning, of the original statement. What they mean is "I could really eat a horse" (to substitute that almost identical word which, for some reason, none of the "literally"-pedants objects to). Or, in other words, they are taking the normal idiomatic meaning of "I could eat a horse" ("I'm very hungry") and intensifying it ("I'm extremely hungry.") The word "literally" is added in to breathe a little more life and vividness into a somewhat trite and stale phrase. To say "I could figuratively eat a horse" would be quite the opposite; it would be a de-intensifier. "I'm hungry, but not really all that hungry."

To claim that the speaker is using "literally to mean figuratively" in such a usage makes us much sense as saying that when the speaker says "I could eat a horse" they are using the word "could" to mean "could not, in fact."
posted by yoink at 12:51 PM on April 22 [7 favorites]


I was thinking exactly about the "historical development" of a language in making the distinction, which I didn't realize was entirely separate from its linguistic properties. That's probably the source of my misunderstanding.

You can at least hammer this into something consistent -- say, it's a novel usage once it becomes widely accepted, and it's an error if it occurs in only one person's speech. You would have to decide what the cut-off point is, and it would still be arbitrary with regard to actual linguistic properties, but whatever; it's something you can use to distinguish even if linguists disagree with you that it's meaningful.

You might not be comfortable with where that leads, though. For one thing, the sociological factors I mentioned? They are quite often based in gender, race, and class. To put it bluntly, one of the best predictors of whether something is widely acceptable or whether it's stigmatized (considered "bad" or "an error") is whether the socioeconomically powerful groups use it. It's not it's linguistic properties, its logical consistency (whatever that is) or the antiquity of its provenance. Language change becomes legitimized when the powerful do it; until then it's bad. Just see how different attitudes are towards 'uptalk' in young American women versus the same intonational contours in Australian English, where they are not associated with a particulargender. You will be inadvertently hitching your wagon to a horse I don't think you'd like. These prejudices can play out within a speech community, and not just society-wide, BTW.

But maybe you would come up with a different distinction--you brought up stability when you brought up second language acquisition. Well, that's a lot closer to what linguists use when distinguishing variation from actual speech errors, but if you use that metric, you will find that you disagree that the majority of language peevery has to do with errors. By the time peevers notice a thing, it's usually (a) stable in the sense of it being a systematic variation in people's grammar, and (b) widespread.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:53 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


They are quite often based in gender, race, and class. To put it bluntly, one of the best predictors of whether something is widely acceptable or whether it's stigmatized (considered "bad" or "an error") is whether the socioeconomically powerful groups use it. It's not it's linguistic properties, its logical consistency (whatever that is) or the antiquity of its provenance.

A great example of this in English usage is "ax" for "ask." Never mind the fact that "ask" is the historical interloper, that "ax" was the best English usage when Chaucer was writing etc. etc. "Ax" is one of the most deprecated usages in American English today, one that school teachers will uniformly correct and which will be used in TV and movies as an instantly recognizable marker of ignorance and low social status. And for why? Because it's strongly associated with black English.
posted by yoink at 12:58 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Maybe if a critical mass of linguists discussing linguistics were actually using the word "creole" in that much looser way, then your joke would hit its target.

Just gonna add something here, because your comment seemed a good place to do it. I think that a lot of people with a cursory knowledge of what 'descriptive' versus 'prescriptive' is hear that linguistics is descriptive, and then assume that this means linguists must accept anything and everything a person can do with language. However, a truer and more subtle characterization is that linguists do not subscribe to the ideology that there is an objectively 'correct' language, which is the basis of one particular--and very widespread--form of prescriptivism. Wanting technical terms in a technical discussion to be used consistently is something apart from that, for example.

(not saying this is you, alasdair, because i think you were joking)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:05 PM on April 22 [4 favorites]


Eh. Awesome and terrible are similar to literally in colloquial use yet I don't think anyone is up in arms about those two.
posted by linux at 1:19 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


I thought we were giving up this fight.
I WILL NOT GIVE UP! "Literal" means "of or relating to letters". In the absurd "free from metaphor" sense that these 15th-to-21st Century upstarts use the word, "literal" literally means "of or relating to letters".
posted by Flunkie at 1:26 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


I would love a script which replaced all informal uses of "you" with the appropriate form of "thou".
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:31 PM on April 22


Hyperbole, man. There's nothing more difficult to understand.
posted by Tevin at 2:15 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


but isn't this phenomenon just figurative usage of the word 'literal'?

Yes, for the love of god, yes.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:48 PM on April 22


So, tell me, do you get equally outraged when people use the word "ideal" to describe something that is, in fact, real ("that chair is ideal for my purposes!")? If not, why not?
No, because something can be both ideal and real; it doesn't leave your mind when someone instantiates it in reality. And expressing an equivalence between the ideal-chair-that-you-imagined and the real-chair-you-see conveys new, useful information: this real chair matches their conception of the ideal chair in some way. Using a metaphor and then trying to intensify it with a word that means "this is not a metaphor" just obscures information.
posted by roystgnr at 3:00 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


An ideal chair is, definitionally, different from a real chair which merely corresponds in some way to an ideal chair. Unless, of course, we were to begin to exercise the same sort of judgment to such use of "ideal" as we would to "literally"...

What information is "obscured" when somebody says that they could literally eat a horse? Are there any English speakers who would actually take that statement to mean that one could, in fact, consume an entire equine?

Can you produce any real world examples of "literally" to actually *mean* "figuratively", as opposed to the common, frequently-observed use of "literally" as an emphasizer?
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:12 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


Nobody who says "I could literally eat a horse" wants you to understand them to mean "I could figuratively eat a horse."

-----
fig·ur·a·tive [fig-yer-uh-tiv]
adjective
1.
of the nature of or involving a figure of speech, especially a metaphor; metaphorical and not literal: The word “head” has several figurative senses, as in “She's the head of the company.” Synonyms: metaphorical, not literal, symbolic.
-----

So, yeah hopefully they do mean figuratively eat a horse. Right?

Which is what's so very very wrong with using it that way. Cause that's . . . literally . . . what I meant? I think?

The word "literally" is added in to breathe a little more life and vividness into a somewhat trite and stale phrase.

But it shouldn't be. Added. Hence the plugin.

Can you produce any real world examples of "literally" to actually *mean* "figuratively"

Well that's the crux of the biscuit innit? If we could literally eat horses (tofu horses, obvs), it's just a bad use of the word, but when we've got literally a billion people complaining about it - that's deliberately sabotaging the language out of willful ignorance.
posted by petebest at 4:23 PM on April 22


that's deliberately sabotaging the language out of willful ignorance.

If this was actually the case--as if languages could even be sabotaged by such an innocuous thing--then you would expect that the more a person loves language and the more that they know about it, the more opposed to the intensifier use of "literally" they would be.

But that's not what we see at all. Instead, the people who oppose intensifier use of literally most of all seem to inhabit a sweet spot: they care about education and see language as an important component of it, but they are not linguists and are mostly ignorant of linguistic analysis. They care because other people have told them that they should care; the ideology of the peeve is part of their self-identification as educated people. Linguists, on the other hand, know that there is no objective, consistently applied criteria that could be used to determine it's wrong.

So, man, if you're going insult people who don't care about your arbitrary grammar peeves by calling them "willfully ignorant," I'm going to have to ask you why the people who are supposedly the least ignorant about how language works generally could care less.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:23 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]


So, yeah hopefully they do mean figuratively eat a horse. Right?

No, this is incorrect. The statements "I'm so hungry that I could eat a horse" and "I'm so hungry that I could literally eat a horse" are both figurative statements, but it does not follow that "literally" means "figuratively" in that statement, just as it does not follow that "could" means "could not" in those sentences. "Literally" is being used as an emphasizer - it does not add a sense of figurativeness to the sentence. Indeed, that would be redundant.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:27 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


To put it more clearly, let's bounce off of yoink's earlier comment:

"I'm absolutely famished," likewise, cannot be true--there is a degree of food privation you could endure beyond that point.

In addition to the fact that nobody seems to mind this use of the word "absolutely" in this sense, there is the fact that "absolutely" is being used as an emphasizer, in order to emphasize one's hunger. In no sense would "absolutely" mean "not absolutely" in this sentence.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:33 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]


I think I've figured out why I'm happy with a (very figurative!) etymology that proceeds from something like "'literally' means 'having to do with words'" to "writing has to do with words, so 'literally' means 'as it was written'" to "we try to write down facts, so 'literally' means 'actually'"... but I'm not happy with an etymology that continues to "hyperbolic events would be more astounding if they actually happened, so 'literally' means 'extra hyperbolically'".

The latter process is a euphemism treadmill. It doesn't stop, it just keeps munching through language.

What happens when people give up on the literal meaning of "literally"? It loses it's hyperbolic meaning too, doesn't it? "Literally" didn't become an intensifier because somebody flipped a dictionary open at random and stuck their hand in the 'L' section, it became an intensifier because people think that calling something non-exaggerated can make the exaggeration more intense. So then "literally" joins "really" as another dead metaphor, and the people who like that kind of metaphor have to swipe another word. This isn't as bad as the more famous euphemism treadmills, because it only hurts clarity of language rather than hurting actual people, but it's still something that deserves opposition.
posted by roystgnr at 5:42 PM on April 22


Can they do a plug-in for "ironic?"
posted by etherist at 5:53 PM on April 22


There are formal semantic systems, though. E.g. Montague grammar, generative semantics, etc..
posted by professor plum with a rope at 7:14 PM on April 22


Using a metaphor and then trying to intensify it with a word that means "this is not a metaphor" just obscures information.

I have literally never had a moment's confusion trying to decide whether a given use of the word "literally" was meant figuratively or not. I deny that anything is ever obscured by using the word that way.
posted by straight at 7:52 PM on April 22


So then "literally" joins "really" as another dead metaphor, and the people who like that kind of metaphor have to swipe another word.

"Dead metaphor" is just a particular type of etymology by which a word comes to have a particular meaning. Like you say, the process of metaphor-->dead metaphor-->definition has already happened to "really" and lots of other words, and it will happen again (if not to "literally" then to some other words you know) because that's one of the things languages constantly do.

it's still something that deserves opposition.

You might as well take a bold stand against photosynthesis.
posted by straight at 8:01 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Reading these kinds of threads is endlessly entertaining, for some reason. It's like a three-ring circus of debates.

So this add-on deals with this problem very literally, doesn't it? Another favorite peeve these days is the Oxford comma. If they make a plug-in for that too, you'll soon be able to read about a family who "figuratively" jumped out of their seats when a cougar entered their house, and you can bet the name of the last person listed will be preceded by a comma.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:33 PM on April 22


But I don't want to be unfigurative.
posted by unliteral at 8:33 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


Actually, the figurative use of 'literally' may be virtually metaphorical.
posted by islander at 8:50 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]


See also, but I wonder about increased loading time after loading a few of these extensions.
posted by hal at 9:07 PM on April 22


This peeve does seem to have become more pronounced in recent years, as does the usage. I wonder if the Great Figurative/Literal Viking Debate is even possible to have at this point.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:22 PM on April 22


catachresis

I love it, knowing there's a word for it and going "hey, I know of that thing!" You find this in hip-hop and it's basically a form of wordplay that I catch myself and my son doing all of the time, noticing it more in myself now and becoming somewhat self-conscious about doing it too often after observing it so much in someone else.

It's almost like a form of sarcasm but more playful and agile, demonstrating the fluidity of language and scoffing at any possible pretense that the parts aren't reusable and interchangeable like Lego, so Lego my Slang, Yo, and while the motivation is not exactly trollishness, it's sometimes perhaps (weasel words!) like playing your music too loud, naively hoping people like it and think you're cool and want to sex you randomly upon hearing your jams rather than deliberately trying to annoy them but knowing deep down that's probably the more likely outcome...

Speaking of hip hop and cool words like "catachresis" I got into the Nas album Illmatic again recently and decided to nerd around and see what others thought about its impact on hip-hop over the past 20 (!) years...the Wikipedia article has a lot of references to lyrical techniques like assonance and enjambment, which I also notice all of the time but only today became aware that there were words assigned to those things. It's interesting that they're very intuitive constructs that we enjoy and employ. I think the rolling-off-the-tonguishness (heh) of "lit-er-uh-lee" has its own expressive value combined with the catachresis. It's perhaps overused but I don't care, but I think "literal" and "literally" are effectively two entirely different words with different meanings that happen to share some letters at this point and agree that "figuratively" is not the substitute, nor is "virtually" or "really" or "actually" and "figuratively" deserves to exist as a word with it own meaning for the time being. It's just extra time being spent expressing a thing to emphasize that the investment in adding some words pays some sort of return in conveying one's intensity, or something.
posted by aydeejones at 12:45 AM on April 23


The statements "I'm so hungry that I could eat a horse" and "I'm so hungry that I could literally eat a horse" are both figurative statements

Didn't used to be.

I'm all for fluiditating gronk communisyrup at bowled times, but this will not stand, man.

In conclusion, Splunge.
posted by petebest at 5:03 AM on April 23


I love saying "literally" because as a fan of hyperbole, it's literally the most you can exaggerate.
posted by speicus at 11:02 AM on April 23


Kutsuwamushi: "To put it bluntly, one of the best predictors of whether something is widely acceptable or whether it's stigmatized (considered "bad" or "an error") is whether the socioeconomically powerful groups use it. It's not it's linguistic properties, its logical consistency (whatever that is) or the antiquity of its provenance. Just see how different attitudes are towards 'uptalk' in young American women versus the same intonational contours in Australian English, where they are not associated with a particulargender."

Couldn't you define this out of the equation by your choice of speech community? If you specify that you're talking about a certain linguistic behavior only in the context of young American women, for example, then you've controlled for at least some of the sociological factors that might otherwise complicate the analysis. That approach certainly has its own problems, since the definition of such sociological categories is itself a major undertaking, and since you deny yourself an existing predictor of acceptability unless you define some sort of elite within the subgroup in question (which then puts you back where you started), but it seems feasible.
posted by invitapriore at 11:51 AM on April 23


Couldn't you define this out of the equation by your choice of speech community?

You could try, but it would be difficult because speech communities are fluid. Also, no matter how small you slice them, you cannot reduce the influence of demographic or sociological factors to zero. For example, after a certain age, male children tend to model their own speech patterns more on their father's speech than their mother's. Even if your speech community is as small as a single household, you still have a situation where 'errors' made by the father are more likely to be imitated and spread than those made by the mother.

But really, what is the motivation for even trying? You use the word "analysis," nd to me this implies some theoretical grounding. Your motivation seems to be the desire to distinguish errors from novel usages, but the criteria you must invent in order to do so have no meaning linguistically. TBH, your need to create these categories is grounded not in linguistic analysis but in language ideology--specifically the belief that there is a meaningful distinction between "correct" and ïncorrect" language in the first place. It's difficult to let go of that because you have probably been taught it all your life, but that's because the ideology is pervasive, not because it's true.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:27 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


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