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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

not literally

In The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747, Samuel Johnson lamented the ineluctable truth about words, i.e. that their meanings are constantly changing:
And who upon this survey can forbear to wish, that these fundamental atoms of our speech might obtain the firmness and immutability of the primogenial and constituent particles of matter, that they might retain their substance while they alter their appearance, and be varied and compounded, yet not destroyed.

But this is a privilege which words are scarcely to expect; for, like their author, when they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it. Though art may sometimes prolong their duration, it will rarely give them perpetuity, and their changes will be almost always informing us, that language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.

Far be it from me to advocate syntactical conservatism, but one of our most valuable words is experiencing an intolerable slippage into its opposite, and all of us who care about language must do what we can to stop it. I've always appreciated the ceaseless engine of innovation that is language. For me, the 1980's in particular stand out as a period of great ferment as hip hop shook up the English-speaking world. We are all the richer for having 'mad' as an adverb (as in 'mad phat'), 'science' restored to its original Latin meaning (as in 'dropping science'), and 'dis' as a diminutive for 'disrespect'. But there is one word whose literal meaning cannot be allowed to change, and that word is 'literal'.

People are increasingly using 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'. Here is an instance from the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 9, 2007. The speaker was Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana:
Now, normally this redtape is a nuisance. We work through it. It is inconvenient. It is a nuisance. But we just sort of move through the redtape of Government. But in this case, it is literally a noose that is around the necks of people, of business owners, large and small, family members—strangling their efforts to recover their communities that were devastated.

Is it time for Northern troops to occupy Louisiana again as they did during the Reconstruction? Is someone literally lynching people down South with nooses made of literal red tape? Senator Landrieu seems to think so.

Figuratively, the noose has enormous suggestive power, especially in discussions of government's treatment of African-Americans in the South. The senator's topic was the obstacles impeding post-hurricane rebuilding on the Gulf Coast. The 'noose' could be an apt metaphor for the way that the federal government under Bush and Cheney has squeezed the life out of New Orleans. But literally?

As a literary scholar and educator, I get a lot of mileage (no, not literal mileage) out of the difference between the literal and the figurative. One of my standard parlor tricks (no, not a literal parlor) in the classroom is to de-familiarize everyday figures, like the synecdoche in 'Get your ass over here', or to revive dead metaphors. My favourite is 'planet', thought today to mean a big chunk of matter that orbits a star. The Greek word for those bright lights was 'planetos', literally 'wanderer'. They called them wanderers or wandering stars because they moved idiosyncratically against the backdrop of the celestial sphere of all the other fixed stars that rotated as one. Thus, when we call a big chunk of orbitting matter a planet, we are using a dead metaphor, for the word literally meant 'wanderer'.

If we lose the literal meaning of 'literal', we would be depriving our language of one of the two words, the other being 'figurative', that most help us understand how language does and does not work. The loss would be, to the entire English-speaking world, a straitjacket—no, not literally, but figuratively.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Steve said...

I suspect that people may half-think that "literally" means "literarily", ie a "literary" use of language, ie figurative, hence the confusion.

2:53 AM, August 02, 2007

 
Anonymous Bill Ectric said...

Steve, I doubt they think that. You are kind for giving people the benefit of the doubt. They are probably just ignorant.

1:51 PM, August 02, 2007

 
Anonymous steve said...

Of course that should never be ruled out.

Apparently some people at the Daily Telegraph find this phenomenon annoying too, having titled their "Infuriating Phrasebook" She Literally Exploded.

3:56 PM, August 02, 2007

 
Anonymous mim said...

That is, without a doubt, my greatest pet peeve about English usage today. If literally means "figuratively," you have no word left for ______.

That's the bottom line. If a word's change in meaning means that there's no word left for the earlier meaning, then it's worth raising a fuss about and not being deterred by the phrase, "Language changes."

10:12 PM, August 02, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I'm glad to see I'm not alone in my concern about the non-literal 'literal'.

There is another usage that drives me nuts that nearly every English speaker commits in speech though not in writing. It is the phrase 'The thing is is that...'

'Is is' makes no sense yet nearly everyone says it and has no idea that they're saying it. When I point out to people that they say it, they're always amazed to discover that they've said something so nonsensical their whole lives without ever realizing it.

Has anyone else noticed the 'is is' problem?

12:51 AM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger Stephen said...

"Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."

6:57 AM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger Father said...

While I agree about "literally," I have to confess that I have never encountered the redundant "is."

My thought about the origin of "literal" abuse is much simpler than Steve's. Occasionally, people who do know what they are talking about will use it -- "there were literally millions at the antiwar rally" -- to indicate that they are not exaggerating or using figurative language. People who don't know quite what it means hear this, and (perhaps assuming that there can't really have been milions in the first place) mistake it for a modifier somehow appropriate to exaggeration or figurative speech. And so the word comes to mean -- or almost mean -- its own opposite.

9:43 AM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

For those who don't recognize it, Stephen's (not Steve) quotation is the opening line of 'The Dead' by James Joyce, which raises some interesting points.

For one thing, the non-literal 'literal' is apparently not a recent phenomenon but at least a century old.

For another, one should be circumspect about attributing fictional content, including grammatical 'errors', to its real-world authors. (By providing the quotation without comment, Stephen has avoided the possible pitfalls.) Things said in fiction can only safely be attributed to the character of the narrator, and the narrator is not the same as the author. Joyce in particular was a writer who took great pains over every word and every rhetorical figure. Let us ask the question then, why might Joyce have begun 'The Dead' with this solecism? Is it an effect of the enthusiasm with which the narrator begins the story? Is it a case of free indirect discourse wherein Lily's exhaustion, simplicity, and carelessness about words have bled into the narrator? I wonder what readers think.

11:58 AM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I like Father's (for the record, not my father) speculative history of the non-literal 'literal'. It does seem to indicate non-exaggeration: I'm not exaggerating; it is literally true. When a metaphor follows, perhaps the speaker is using 'literally' to justify the aptness of the metaphor: I am literally justified in using the metaphor of the noose.

That he has never heard the redundant 'is' convinces me that he uses it routinely. It is ubiquitous.

12:05 PM, August 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

To be fair, the "redundant" "is" is usually rhythmically punctuated in speech, like so: "The thing is, is that..."

Similarly in French people say "Le truc c'est que..." ie "The thing, it is that..." Evidently you don't need the pronoun "it" right after "the thing".

In my opinion, neither is "nonsensical": the meaning is perfectly clear. This is not a solecism on the order of "literally", which is dangerous because it threatens to destroy a useful meaning. But it's no news that speech differs from writing. (Try reading a linguist's accurate transcript of a conversation, even or especially one between highly educated and eloquent people, including all the ums and ers, "nonsensical" and nongrammatical phrasal fragments, repetitions, corrections etc.)

If I ever saw "The thing is, is that" in writing, and not as reported or invented speech, then I might be annoyed.

3:47 PM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Steve is right about the sound of 'is is', but I prefer to type it without the comma in order to emphasize the strangeness of the phrase. I think that people unconsciously think they're saying 'What the thing is is that...', which would be grammatically sound but unnecessarily wordy.

Surely, 'is is' is not as offensive as 'literally'. But I don't agree that the second 'is' is analogous to 'um'. 'Is' is a word, whereas 'um' generally adds no meaning to the literal meaning of the sentence. Nor is it analogous to French. All French speakers accept 'Le truc c'est que...'. If we needed to parse it, we could say that 'Le truc' is an appositive phrase modifying 'ce'.

10:22 PM, August 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

I don't agree that the second 'is' is analogous to 'um'.
I didn't say it was directly analogous to "um" specifically, I was just saying that normal speech, including mine and yours, is notoriously strung together out of ungrammatical, repetitive and fragmentary syntagms, which only a maniac would complain about.

All French speakers accept 'Le truc c'est que...'.
Not at all. It's frowned upon by many French speakers of the maniacal variety.

10:42 PM, August 03, 2007

 
Blogger richard said...

I'm with Father on the use of "literally:" I think the senator with her "literal noose" wouldn't feel that "figurative noose" was a perfect substitution. She uses literally as an emphatic that denies hyperbole - which involves us in an interesting game of communication: she knows, and we know, that the noose isn't to be taken literally, but she uses it to bolster her image, and most of us accept her tactic.

Also, every time Jeff uses (not literally) he shows us that for normal communication it's unnecessary to do so. In another genre of writing (a scientific journal, perhaps) such specification might be needed, but we know what he's saying (don't we?).

5:54 AM, August 05, 2007

 

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