English is Literally Alive

Recently (at least in a historical sense), a new definition for the word literally was added to the dictionary, rather opposite of its original meaning.

And a lot of people are upset by this, which I can kind of understand.  The word now literally means the opposite of its original meaning, and that’s just confusing and wrong.  It would be terrific if people stopped using it incorrectly so that it could retain only its original meaning.

Except, in the long run, and in my humble opinion, that would be really dumb (or rather more accurately, if English were the kind of language where that were possible, it would lose a lot of what makes it awesome).

English is a living language.  It changes when people use it differently, which is why we’ve lost entire persons (grammatically).  We don’t have a central body to decide what words mean, or how verbs are conjugated.  We just use the language, do what sounds good, and it all changes as we do.

You guys, that’s cool as hell.

New words (and new usages) are literally being invented all the time.  Most don’t stick, and a lot are dumb, but some have staying power.  I think we only have particular prejudice against those created in our current time – those that happened in the past don’t jive wrong to us.

My case for that?  Read up.  At least once (so, once intentionally, and if it happened more than once I’m going to pretend it was intentional) I used a work that means the total opposite of what it originally did, but no one rails against that.  No one calls it stupid, or wrong, or not a word.

The only difference between “terrific” and “literally” is time.  If literally catches on with its new, ironic-and-exaggerated meaning, in two hundred years that literally meant anything else will be a footnote.  There are probably tons more examples, but I’m not remembering them (if you know some words whose meanings have dramatically changed over time, I’d love to hear them!).

Now, I’m not saying you should accept this new definition of literally with open arms.  It’s up to the users of the language, all of them, to vet usages and some (most) don’t catch on.  But our language is alive, and meanings shift, and that is fucking awesome.  Don’t be a prescriptivist – it ruins a lot of what is fun about English, which is the play of words.

On an additional note in this area, the fight against “irregardless” is older than you are.  By a lot.  This is not a recent thing that is the fault of the internet generation.  As in, it is first attested in usage in the 1870’s; I just don’t think this is a fight you can win, even assuming that any one person or body had the right to adjudicate what is and isn’t a word (and in English, they can’t).

My suggestion?  Approach with humor.  Learn from the humble alot.  And appreciate how awesome it is that our language is so alive and malleable, even if it sometimes causes things to be said that are stupid as fuck.

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4 Responses to English is Literally Alive

  1. cosmato says:

    Also, to preempt something – please don\’t try to argue that, since we don\’t have a central body and the language is constantly evolving anything can go (and don\’t pretend I said that). \”Me done good\” is wrong because it sounds wrong and doesn\’t clearly communicate its point based on our agreed-upon grammar (though, if most English speakers started doing it, it would become right – but don\’t worry, you\’ll be dead by then). Why do some initially incorrect usages die out and others catch on? Darn good question that I\’m certain I don\’t know the answer to.

  2. tiakall says:

    I’m glad you said that, because if you had tried to convince me also that “u” is a valid substitution for “you” when you are 1. not on an old-school phone or 2. have broken fingers, I’m afraid I would have had to terminate your life. 😀

    I lump misuse of “literally” in with misuse of “irony” – eye-rolling but not worth fussing about. If you use literally in place of “very”, I’ll still know what you mean. (Also, I totally use irregardless.)

    Another word that changed its meaning? Try “gay” or “fag”, neither of which were remotely related to sexual orientation.

    Also, silly cosmam: everyone knows it’s “I done good”. /Deep South

  3. racquelin says:

    Where’s the line between accepting evolution and change and just saying, no, you’re being ignorant? Where’s the line between ‘terrific’ and accepting a verbal spasm of “afjaoifgjaiof” to express incoherent excitement?

    I don’t know, I just like being held to a higher standard. I’m alarmingly denotative with vocabulary (and, just to bug you, sometimes I do have to restrain myself from using the original definition of ‘terrific’). (Aaaand, I still love adverbs, so what then.) I agree with Tia: ‘literally’ and ‘irony’ are of the same level of annoyance–and I tend to consider the speaker/writer as a vapid teenager. Same with excessive ‘like.’ I KNOW I’M A SNOB. JUDGE ME.

    • cosmato says:

      I don\’t think there is a hard line between ignorance and evolution of language, but I think it comes down to: what sounds good (which is ultimately how our language works). Of course, there is never 100% agreement on that, and there are people that prefer older meanings for words and some who prefer newer, some that love adverbs and others that abhor them, etc. The shift over time is extremely non-homogenous, basically, and a lot never catches on (and shouldn\’t).

      I think technology is having an effect here, too (though I hesitate to say \”technology is ruining the language!!!1111\”, since that has been said about both readily available letter sending (USPS and stamps, for instance) and the newspaper (technology ruining our lives, shortening our attention span, and giving us information overload is a REALLY old idea)). A computer used to be a job title; nowadays, that doesn\’t jive.

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