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16 December 2004 @ 17:44
Literal-minded  

I have occasionally been told that I am literal-minded. This happens, on average, about 1.6 seconds after I deliberately ignore one of Grice's maxims for what I vainly imagine to be comic effect. But although I am not nearly so literal-minded as I pretend to be, I am literal-minded enough to giggle when I hear or read sentences like these:

  1. Mr. Chamberlain literally bubbled over with gratitude.
  2. In 1957, the Liberals literally hurled themselves from office.
  3. I saw journalists become animals, literally.1

I read these, and in my mind's eye I see Mr. Chamberlain boiling merrily away like a teakettle; I see M. St.-Laurent and his cabinet defenestrating themselves; I see lyncanthropes with press passes, barking. If the authors of these sentences (who are, respectively, the Westminster Gazette, Dalton Camp, and Gary Hart) thought that the insertion of the word literally would somehow make their metaphors more vivid, then, by gum, they were right.

On the other hand, I don't think they meant to amuse me quite as much as they ended up doing, and this use of literally with figurative expressions is widely deplored. The first example above I got from the OED, which uses it to illustrate the observation that the word literally is "now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense." (The OED's earliest clear example of this particular use of the word dates from 1863.) Examples two and three are quoted in a column by Robert Fulford, who fulminates (no, he does not literally thunder and lighten) against this usage. Fulford attributes his antipathy to a trauma suffered in his youth:

Many years ago I suffered under a boss who liked to summarize a tough business situation by saying, "I was literally caught with my pants down." This left an indelible image in my mind, and perhaps made me more than normally sensitive to the abuse of "literally."

Fulford quotes H. W. Fowler as saying that "such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible." (And then he falsely accuses Fowler of mixing metaphors; did he forget the non-vehicular meaning of the word traffic?) As for me, I find this use of literally more amusing than deplorable. My prescriptivist streak and deep-seated linguistic conservatism lead me to think of it as an error, but since there are so many people out there decrying it already, let me at least temporarily take up the brief for the defence.

The prosecution is fond of saying that in sentences such as 1-3 above, the word literally is being used as if it meant 'figuratively,' which is precisely the opposite of what it does mean, and thus ludicrously incorrect. However, we might want to note that simply leaving out the word literally (which would, I think, satisfy the prescriptivists) would not change the meanings of the sentences in any way. If I say, "In 1957 the Liberals hurled themselves out of office," then I am uttering an untruth; it is up to the listener to figure out that I am flouting Grice's first maxim of quality so as to convey some idea other than what I am actually asserting. The addition of the word literally does not materially change this situation. It adds an explicit assertion that what I am saying is true, which is false, but it is just as obviously false as the rest of the statement.

Secondly, I would like to invite the prosecution to consider a few precedents that may bear on the case of literally. Go and get yourself a dictionary that provides etymologies, and look up the following words:

There's a pattern here, no? It seems that English has a long tradition of turning words that mean 'in truth' into general-purpose intensifiers. And while you can certainly find people who insist on restricting truly and really to their original senses, I expect you would have a great deal of trouble finding anyone who will seriously insist that the English word very can only be used synonymously with the French word vrai. The path of semantic change that literally seems to be following is well-worn, and time, I think, is on the side of those who use literally non-literally.

The other day, though, I saw literally used in a rather different way:

Here, the words literally and figuratively are being used to distinguish what a semanticist would call the de re and de dicto (or specific and non-specific) readings of the sentence "I'm looking for a tall blonde woman in a spandex bustier." In the de re reading, the noun phrase "a tall blonde woman in a spandex bustier" refers to a specific individual meeting that description (viz., Lightning Lady, in case you're interested), and Lightning Lady would still be who the speaker (the Unholy Mackerel, in case you're really interested) was looking for even if she dyed her hair jet-black and changed into a tweed suit. In the de dicto reading, the speaker would like to encounter just about anybody matching the description "a tall blonde woman in a spandex bustier." The two readings are equally literal, so I find it a bit odd to use the terms literally and figuratively to distinguish them, although of course it seems to be necessary to set up the gag in the fourth panel. I mean, I think that "Trust me, from the sounds of this babe, you'll be looking at her de dicto" is a pretty funny line, but then that's why I'm a linguist and not a cartoonist: I'm too damn literal-minded.


1. Not vice versa?

 
 
 
feline soy producttofu_cat on 17. December, 2004 01:27 (UTC)
Speaking of literal-minded, a friend recently came over to my house and said, numerous times, that I was "very domesticated". Now, I would understand if she said that I had been domesticated, but clearly she meant I was very domestic. It was with great restraint that I didn't tell her that, yes, in fact, I no longer urinate on the carpet (literally a miracle of evolution). She was, after all, complimenting me. And I suspect that this has also seeped into popular usage and is interchangeable with domestic... most people I've asked didn't see the difference.

Ah well. Maybe she did mean to imply that I used to be a savage heathen.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 17. December, 2004 17:07 (UTC)
Admirable restraint!
ateo on 17. December, 2004 02:31 (UTC)
Interestingly, it's quite hard to use the word 'literally' in this fashion if you really are being literal. If you were to say, for example, after slipping on ice and falling down, "I literally broke my tailbone", it would be assumed that you actually haven't broken it. A while ago, I noticed the word "proverbial" is used in a similarly strange way. You say things like "she kicked the proverbial bucket" or such. However, if the expression is actually (part of) an actual proverb, it sounds quite infelicitous to say "proverbial", doesn't it? Proverbial glass house? Two birds in the proverbial bush? Ugh
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 17. December, 2004 17:10 (UTC)

Hmm... I agree with your intuitions about literally—I definitely wouldn't say "I literally broke my tailbone" if it were true (not that I would say it if it were false, either)—but not about proverbial. It sounds just as good to me with allusions to proverbs as it does with idioms like "kick the bucket."

"That Anne Girl": Pussyfootabenn on 17. December, 2004 18:40 (UTC)
I used to live near a pet store with this sign outside:

TROPICAL FISH
GROOMING

This never failed to amuse me.

I can't help wondering what the pattern you've described (of words that mean "in truth" turning into general purpose intensifiers) says about the veracity of Anglophones.

And I love the idea of lycanthropes with press passes. I'll have to pass that one on to the werewolves on my friends list.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 17. December, 2004 21:20 (UTC)

I don't imagine tropical fish take well to being gone over with a currycomb....

And I suspect that the changes we've seen in very, really, truly, and now literally reflect more on human nature in general rather than on anglophone mendacity in particular, although I can't think of any good examples from other languages off the top of my head. Of course, I'm an anglophone myself, so that could just be wishful thinking....

"That Anne Girl": Pussyfootabenn on 17. December, 2004 21:23 (UTC)
Literally!
Gay But Not Narrowruakh on 6. September, 2008 13:24 (UTC)
(Here from your recent entry "Lynn Johnston ≠ Dalton Camp", which Neal Whitman linked to yesterday in his entry "Worth Reading".)

Well, French vraiment, franchement, tellement, and véritablement ("truly", "frankly", "so"/"suchly", and "veritably") are all generic intensifiers usable (to varying degrees) in metaphor. Likewise Hebrew ממש/mamash and באמת/beemet ("really" and "truly"), though באמת/beemet is like literally in that while some people will use it figuratively, others will find that odd or incorrect.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 7. September, 2008 03:43 (UTC)

Thanks for the additional examples! It's interesting to see that this particular semantic shift turns up repeatedly in mulitple languages; it seems to be a well-worn path for words to travel.

lana_wadley on 8. Juni, 2009 09:01 (UTC)
to add more about languages, I should say that although "literature" is pronounced almost the same in Russia ("литература"), the word "literally" sounds quite different ("буквально") and is rooted in the word "letter" ("буква")! ain't that amazing?

---
Best regards,
Lana from Legal Conveyancing Services
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