Use or Abuse of the Word 'Literally'

The use — and some would say, misuse — of the word "literally" has many lovers of the English language in an uproar. But Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, asks critics to — literally — hold their fire.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And here's another debate, a linguistic debate. When it comes to the English language, purists are constantly defending it against assaults. One such transgression makes them so angry steam literally comes out of their ears. Or does it? Using `literally' to describe something that's not literally true irritates many people. Jesse Sheidlower is the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. He says the critics should back off, and points out that even great writers have been `literally' to mean `figuratively' for centuries.

JESSE SHEIDLOWER:

When I introduce myself as a dictionary editor to a stranger, I can usually count on a few things. The stranger will say, `Oh, I'll have to watch how I talk in front of you.' The stranger will ask me about why some word like `bling' was put into the dictionary--`the' dictionary, as though there's only one. And then the stranger will complain about a pet usage peeve, some error perpetrated by members of a disliked group: sportscasters, say, or teen-agers, or Americans.

Recently, strangers I meet seem particularly peeved by people who use `literally' to mean `figuratively,' the ones who say things like, `He literally exploded with rage.' As is often the case, though, such abuses have a long and esteemed history in English. The ground was not especially sticky in "Little Women" when Louisa May Alcott wrote that `The land literally flowed with milk and honey.' Tom Sawyer was not turning somersaults on piles of money when Mark Twain described him as `literally rolling in wealth.' Jay Gatsby was not shining when Fitzgerald wrote that he `literally glowed.' Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate.

How did literally come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant, either `word for word' or `exactly'? By the late 17th century, `literally' was being used as an intensifier for true statements. Jane Austen wrote of being `literally rocked in bed on a stormy night.' In such examples, `literally' is being used for the sake of emphasis alone. Eventually, though, `literally' began to be used to intensify statements that were themselves figurative or metaphorical. You can find examples throughout the 19th century, but no one seems to have objected until the early 20th. In 1909, the satirist Ambrose Bierce included the term in "Write it Right," a little blacklist of literary faults. `It is bad enough to exaggerate,' he wrote, `but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.'

In truth, many words are used in seemingly contradictory ways. They're known as Janus words, contronymns or autoantonyms. They include `cleave,' which means both `to stick to' and `to split apart,' and the verb `dust,' meaning both `to remove dust from' and to `sprinkle dust upon.' And don't forget `peruse' and `scan,' each of which means both `to read closely' and `to skim.'

Usage writers often single out one of the meanings as wrong, although the right definition is simply the older one or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically. In fact, the literal meaning of `literal' is something like `according to the letter.' So when we use `literally' to refer to something other than individual letters, we're already walking down the figurative path. If we end up with people eating curry so hot their mouths are literally on fire, how surprised can we be? And why don't we also complain about using the word `really' to refer to things that aren't real? In "Little Women," when Meg moans that `It's been such a dismal day; I'm really dying for some amusement,' she's not the one who's really dying.

The one sensible criticism of the way `literally' is often used is that it can lead to confusing or silly-sounding results. In this case, the answer is simple. Don't write silly-soundingly.

BRAND: Opinion from Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. And you can find his article at slate.com.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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