Trying To Stop Words From Changing Their Meanings Is "Literally" Useless

Illustration for article titled Trying To Stop Words From Changing Their Meanings Is "Literally" Useless

Lately, it seems that there are few words in the English language that stir up as much semantic ire as "literally" does. As more and more people have been using "literally" to mean "really," some English speakers fret that the meaning of the word will change. But the truth is that it would hardly be the first.


Top image includes a quote from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Certainly there's nothing inherently wrong with debating English usage (although those debates can often cross the line from useful to elitist). After all, we want a language that allows us to communicate our ideas easily and effectively. But it's also important for us to keep our linguistic history in mind. After all, complaining about English is nearly as old as English itself, and today's correct usage is, in many cases, yesterday's semantic mistake.

In his book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation, Ammon Shea notes that the word "literally" has had more than one meaning over the centuries. Modern folks who consider themselves linguistic sticklers typically use it to mean "not metaphorically," but it has also been used to mean "word for word" and "relating to letters or literature. Plus, Shea reminds us, the use of "literally" as an intensifier isn't exactly new, nor is it necessarily a marker of linguistic ignorance. Mark Twain, James Joyce, and Jane Austen have all used "literally" this way, and they're hardly people we'd consider careless with the language.


But what Bad English really hits home is that "literally" is hardly the only word to enjoy (or, depending on your point of view, suffer from) semantic drift. "Literally" gets the majority of the press these days, but another word that recently been the subject of linguistic battles is "hopefully." Many of us use "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped" or "I hope," as in "Hopefully, the next Star Wars movie will be better than the prequels." That is (not literally) nails on a chalkboard to people who believe that "hopefully" should only mean "in a hopeful manner," as in "Despite the poor quality of the Star Wars prequels, I hopefully watched the Episode VII trailer."

To be honest, I'd never heard the latter definition of "hopefully" until a few years ago, and it still sounds odd to my ears. In 1997, the writer Sir Kingsley Amis complained, "When someone says or writes, 'Hopefully, the plan will be in operation by the end of the year,' we know immediately that we are dealing with a dimwit at best." But for many English speakers, the definition of "hopefully" drifted away from that in Amis' The Kings English long ago.


Looking at the history of the English language, it becomes clear that semantic drift is simply part of our linguistic evolution. Prescriptivists once cringed when people used "awful" to mean "bad" instead of "inspiring with awe." Ambrose Bierce wrote that "dilapidated" should refer only to decaying stone buildings because it comes from the Latin "lapis," meaning "stone." "Lovely" an 1899 book on word choice argues, should be reserved for things worthy of actual love, not things that are merely nice. And "nice," for that matter, shouldn't be "used to express every kind and degree of admired or appreciated quality; as, 'a nice time,' 'a nice horse,' 'a nice rain,' 'a nice man,' 'a nice sermon,' 'a nice funeral'" — at least according to a 1917 edition of Funk and Wagnalls' Faulty Dictionary. The list goes on.


In at least one case, two words have even swapped meanings. The word "disinterested" once meant "lacking interest" while "uninterested" meant "lacking bias." Now the reverse is widely considered proper English usage. Was there grumbling? Yes, but the meanings of the two words shifted anyway.

Amidst all of these changes, it's interesting to see where people draw their lines in the linguistic sand. Someone may correct your usage of "decimate," informing you that it means "to kill one in ten people." (Shea points to this as an example of etymological fallacy, the idea that the current definition of a word must be beholden to its etymological roots.) But it's likely that the same person won't bat an eye when you say you're going to a carnival (literally a "farewell to meat"), even if you're just going to the local fair and not a pre-Lenten celebration.


"Literally" wouldn't even be the first English word to become its own antonym. In "The Dead," for example, when James Joyce says, "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet," he means that she has been figuratively run off her feet. How can "literally" mean both "figuratively" and "non-figuratively"? Look at words like "sanction" ("to approve" or "to impose a penalty on"), "terrific" ("imposing terror" or "great"), and the aforementioned "awful."

I am not arguing that we should be more careless with how we use our words — and I don't believe Shea is either. Quite the contrary, I think that we should consider not just the meanings of our words, but also their impact out in the world. But when we tear out our hair over the possibility that one word's definition may change, it's important to pause and remember all the ways that English has changed in the mouths of millions of speakers.




My personal pet peeve is "decimate."