Revenge, literally speaking

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The latest xkcd:

Literally

(For more on non-literal literally, see here, here, and here.)

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29 Comments »

  1. Carlos Serrano said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 2:53 am

    I'm using the comments section because I didn't find an email address where I could send this. Please read the first photo caption in this article:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8530000/8530686.stm

    The sentence I want to point you to is: "12 year-old, Henri, which is not his real name, points at a large fresh looking scar on his midriff."

    I'm not exactly sure whether it is correct to begin a sentence with a subject, then admit it's not the real subject, and then end the sentence as if it were. Please clarify.

  2. Stan said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    I like the crazy hair and beard. It's a very economic way to evoke the years of obsessive waiting.

  3. bulbul said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 6:39 am

    I literally lolled.

  4. Private Zydeco said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    Fifth panel, preceding other four:
    "and the soda and gummi bears spilled all over!
    But the movie had just started, so…"

  5. Aaron Toivo said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    I can't wait for the reduplicated version (specifying actual literality) to get yanked into service as a general intensifier too. That will literally literally be awesome.

  6. Karen said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Carlos: It's perfectly fine. He IS the real subject, they're just not using his actual name.

  7. Alexandra said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    @Aaron Toivo: Love it! I'm going to start using that.

  8. Adrian Morgan said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    I get a strong emotional "oh no, not again" reaction every time I see the claim that people use "literally" to mean "figuratively", because of course, they don't. As we know, they use it as an intensifier of figurative statements. If "literally" as an intensifier of figurative statements meant the same as "figuratively", then "figuratively" would also have to be an intensifier of figurative statements, which it isn't.

    Sometime recently I read an article (but can't remember where) in which the writer claimed that people use "literally" to mean "figuratively", but then went on to explain correctly that they use it as an intensifier. So if the writer understands that, why make the inaccurate claim in the first place? I really don't get that.

  9. Carlos Serrano said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    I read the sentence again and it still feels wrong. Exactly what is Henri? The embedded clause implies that "Henri" is a word rather than a person, which leaves the "his" without a referent; and then the sentence goes on to treat Henri as a person after the embedded clause had already clarified that "Henri" does not refer to the person it's speaking about. Rephrasing that sentence would make it less ambiguous, something like:

    "12 year-old, Henri, whose real name we will omit, points at a large fresh looking scar on his midriff."

    Now that I look at this proposed rephrasing, I have a clearer idea of what felt wrong about the original sentence. Referring to Henri as a "who" keeps the consistency with the rest of the sentence, which depends on interpreting "Henri" as meaning a person instead of a word.

    Perhaps I'm being too nitpicky about this. Please comment.

  10. Ellen said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    Carlos, while it could be worded better, the only thing truly wrong with it that I see is the comma before "Henri".

  11. Mark F said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    Actually, they do mean "literally." They just don't mean it literally.

  12. Barney said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Carlos: Read http://www.sfu.ca/philosophy/swartz/use&mention.htm

  13. Allison said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    I had a conversation partner (Japanese native speaker) that asked me to explain the usage of literally.

    It was harder than I expected it to be.

    Does Japanese not have intensifiers? She found the whole concept really tough.

  14. richard said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    @Allison sure, Japanese has intensifiers. For instance, consider "taihen" (大変), which Google chooses to translate as "dreadful" (hmm…I suppose). Taihen can modify an adjective, it which case I would tend to translate as "extremely [adjective]" or "enormously [adjective]." It can also stand alone, in which case it's almost more of an interjection, an expression of surprise and shock (real or ironic). In the classic manga/anime Akira, when a nurse realizes that Akira has not only developed dangerous abilities but has escaped from his locked hospital room, she runs down the hall announcing "Sensei, taihen desu!" I like to think of that as "Doctor, it's very!"

    And in fact I have heard native Japanese speakers say, in English, things like "It was extremely!" and "It was enormously!" I long ago gave up waiting for the end of their sentences when they do that–they're conveying their surprise, shock, or wonder, not literally (or figuratively) describing the thing that surprised them.

  15. Jim F said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    But I can still object to this usage by Sarah Palin, right?

    “I see us as the most unique state in the union,” Palin replied. “I sure wish that we could be recognized as the head and not the tail of the U.S., because we should be the head—literally and figuratively.”

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    Adrian Morgan: When people say that people use 'literally' to mean 'figuratively', they are not using 'mean' to mean 'mean'.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    @Carlos Serrano: It's an idiomatic, concise way of saying "A 12-year-old boy who we'll call Henri (though that's not his real name) points at…"

    You can e-mail questions to individual Language Loggers—most or all of them have Web sites with contact information. You can also ask questions on various forums. I'm fond of the Usenet group alt.usage.english.

    @Barney: I think Carlos's problem with the sentence is that the single instance of Henri seems to be simultaneously use and mention.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

    Does "literally" mean the same thing as "exponentially" now? "Exponentially" seemed to me to have became fully unmoored when it started applying to only two data points (how many are needed to demonstrate superpolynomiality, anyway?) with no ordinate reference. "I was exponentially glued to my seat" uses more syllables than "literally" or the caveman-gruntish "totally".

  19. Russell said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:07 am

    I was glad to see at least a few people on the xkcd forum note that what peevers usually mean by the literal meaning of "literal" is in fact historically metaphorical.

    @Carlos, Jerry, Barney

    It's actually pretty cool that single noun phrases (or other types of phrases) can be simultaneously used and mentioned. Lots of parenthetical statements take advantage of this possibility (Splork, as the locals call it, is a substance that…, Alan, if I may call him that, told me… [i.e., "that" is coreferential with Alan as a name, not as a person]). I do find the caption a bit jerky for some reason, but probably not *simply* for the use-mention business.

  20. Peter Taylor said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    Nathan Myers wrote:

    "Exponentially" seemed to me to have became fully unmoored when it started applying to only two data points (how many are needed to demonstrate superpolynomiality, anyway?)

    An infinite number. Given n data points with different values of the independent variable you can always fit an order-(n-1) polynomial through them.

  21. Troy S. said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    Etymonline provides some unusual logic on the usage of literally: "Erroneously used in reference to metaphors, hyperbole, etc., even by writers like Dryden and Pope, to indicate "what follows must be taken in the strongest admissible sense" (1680s), which is opposite to the word's real meaning."

    Fortunately, it seems, our lexicographer is a better expert on usage than either Dryden or Pope.

  22. Aaron Davies said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    @allison, richard: it might also be compared to sticking a "よ" ("yo") particle on the end of a sentence. i'm fairly sure i've seen various anime characters saying "ですよ" ("<copula> <intensifier>") to mean "it really is!!!".

  23. Jason L. said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    "I was exponentially glued to my seat"

    I don't think anyone would actually use it this way. To my lay ear, "exponentially" is used as an intensifier for comparisons or for processes or developments, as in, "this week's syllabub is exponentially frothier than last week's", or "syllabub consumption in Wasilla seems to taking off exponentially" (when the speaker means that people are consuming more and more syllabub in Wasilla, rather than it's literally an exponential increase).

  24. peter said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    Peter Taylor said: (April 10, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    "Given n data points with different values of the independent variable you can always fit an order-(n-1) polynomial through them."

    In fact, given n data points (whether different values of the independent variable or not), it is always possible to fit through them any polynomial of any order, not only order-(n-1).

  25. Michael said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    peter, I suspect you're using 'fit through' in a different way than Peter Taylor.

    In his usage, the polynomial fits only by passing directly through each point.

    I would guess you mean 'through' meaning 'in the midst of' or 'between' – i.e. by some metric it's 'near' to each point.

    Or if not, consider that no straight line (polynomial of degree 1) can pass through all the vertices of a triangle.

  26. peter said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    Michael – No, I'm using "fit through" in the same way, but allowing non-unique solutions.

    If you have two points, for example, they will determine a unique straight line (a 1-dimensional polynomial) that fits through them. But you can also draw an infinite number of 2-dim polynomials through the two points, or 3-dim polynomials, and so on.

    I was thinking only of polynomials of order higher than n, so you are correct about polynomials of lower order.

  27. Sili said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:43 am

    Aaron Davies said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    @allison, richard: it might also be compared to sticking a "よ" ("yo") particle on the end of a sentence. i'm fairly sure i've seen various anime characters saying "ですよ" (" ") to mean "it really is!!!".

    Dattebayo?

  28. Private Zydeco said,

    April 17, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    Oh! nostalgia for the long-subsided days
    when "lit'rally", pariah phrasal modifier,
    the cliche'd apercu, the careworn phrase,
    restored from triteness (lest one be a liar).

  29. Jens Fiederer said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Used again in the comment section here:

    http://thedailywtf.com/Comments/Extensible-XML.aspx

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