Monday, March 5, 2012

Losing Literally

At a professional meeting the other day, I heard the following two sentences:

"I've been literally bashing students over the head with information literacy."
"She literally blew the professor's socks off."
As one of my favorite humor sites, the Oatmeal, explains: "literally means actually or without exaggeration."

These were not uneducated simpletons who made those statements. They both had master's degrees, and at least one of them was intelligent and thoughtful. (He had a beard and glasses, so he must be, right?)

Doesn't he look smart?

As someone who studied linguistics, I know what's going on.

Popular usage is changing the meaning of the word "literally."

Look, words change meanings. It happens. If it didn't, then everyone in Spain, France, Italy, and South America would be speaking Latin.

One of my favorite examples of this is from the 17th century when Queen Ann described a new cathedral as "awful, artificial, and amusing." It was a compliment. Back then those words meant awesome, clever, and though-provoking, respectively. (A quick web search casts this particular story into doubt, however, claiming it to be apocryphal. Still, it illustrates how the meaning of words can change.)

"Literally" is now going the way of "really." I imagine at one point really referred to something being real. I really want to eat an entire gourd! But then it started being used as an intensifier, to mean very much or a lot. That's what's happening to literally. It's becoming an intensifier. From a linguistic standpoint it's kind of interesting to see this happen before my eyes.

For a while there I think people were using "literally" ironically, as a joke. But now it's seeping into our language as a non-ironic intensifier. "I've LIT-rully never been happier!" I blame Rob Lowe on Parks and Recreation.

I'm literally mourning the loss of literally. I'm literally wearing black pants today. My heart is literally heavy: about 10 ounces.

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