Annals of word rage

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In a recent post at Jezebel, Sadie Stein documents the usage of literally as in intensifier, and the often-intense negative reaction, both to the word-sense itself and to its sometimes-spectacularly-frequent deployment ("Saying 'Literally' All The Time Is Literally An Issue").

Ms. Stein reposts "A Compilation of Rachel Zoe Literally Repeating Herself", originally posted by Tracie on 10/27/2010, which I missed the first time around; and this 2002 anti-literally rant by David Cross, as well as a link to "We are literally exaggerating".

It was gratifying to see one of the first commenters at Jezebel linking to Ben Zimmer's "Literally: A History", LL 11/1/2005.


  1. Chris said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    I now say "literally literally" to distinguish actual literality.

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Annals of word rage [] on said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    […] Language Log » Annals of word rage – view page – cached In a recent post at Jezebel, Sadie Stein documents the usage of literally as in intensifier, and the often-intense negative reaction, both to the word-sense itself and to its sometimes-spectacularly-frequent deployment ("Saying 'Literally' All The Time Is Literally An Issue"). […]

  3. Marc said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    I've taught my kids to say figuratively.

  4. John Cowan said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    Why should literal be the one and only word which cannot be used figuratively? Is it a Rigidarian Worship Word, or something?

  5. Charles Gaulke said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    I've rarely misunderstood someone using "literally" as an intensifier – it generally seems like you'd have to really make an effort to do so. There is a problem with it, but it mostly seems to run in the other direction.

    It annoys me because I'm tired of people assuming I really don't mean something literally when I've explicitly labelled my statement as such. There's a kind of "boy who cried wolf" aspect where, because the figurative sense actually seems more common (in informal speech), the literal sense has become deprecated and I am forced to resort to things like the (annoying to me, at least) recursive "literally literally" sited above. I don't begrudge others figures of speech I don't use myself, but in this case I have to tell people I'm NOT using it, which I think may be unique.

  6. Mark P said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    @John Cowan, that battle has already been fought and won. It's common today to see "literally" used as an intensifier (rather than to mean literally literally). I did a very quick search, and it appears that "literally" is used a lot more often than "figuratively," so it seems possible that someone not checking a dictionary might even interpret it to mean something more like "figuratively," since "figuratively" is not available as often for contrast But the issue here seems to be overuse as well as perceived misuse.

  7. GEW said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    Agreed – the problem isn't with misunderstanding its use as an intensifyer, but with the unavailability of a suitable similar word to mean, well, non-figuratively. "Really" would have done, except that it's undergone a similar transformation to intensifier. There's always "truly", but it doesn't have the same sense of contrast with "figurately".

  8. Brett said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

    I often find myself using "genuinely" to express that something is the literal truth, to avoid confusion over the meaning of "literally." As with the other options, such as "truly," it usually works, but it doesn't always express the precise contrastive feeling that I want.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    @John Cowan: Because literally is the one word that means "not figuratively".

  10. Kylopod said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    I think it's a misconception that the word "literally" is being used as a stand-in for "figuratively" in these apparently non-literal usages of the term. I think a deeper reason is that there are multiple levels of literalism in language, and sometimes "literal" is used to penetrate one level but not another.

    For example, if I say "I literally shot down everything he said," what I mean is that I'm not exaggerating when I say I refuted every single thing he said. In fact, I could have phrased the statement, "I literally refuted everything he said," and then that would be a more traditional use of literally. But I as soon as I replace the word "refute" with the idiomatic "shoot down," suddenly literally starts to sound inappropriate to those who notice these things.

    The problem is that a lot of idioms are so ingrained in the language they're literally invisible, and so we treat them as straightforward terms, and the "literally" may not be commenting on the idiom itself but on other aspects of the sentence.

  11. Claire said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

    I think the issue in Kylopod's sentence is that "literally" goes with "everything" (I shot down literally everything he said – which would be totally fine even to a literally-stickler), but it's raising for some reason, and creating an ambiguity as to whether it goes with "everything" or "shot down".

    I think I'd say the two meanings differently ("I literally SHOT DOWN everything" vs. "I literally shot down EVERYTHING"), but in online discourse there's not much of a way to disambiguate.

  12. Jahi Chappell said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

    Who are GEW and Charles talking to that can't tell from the context whether they mean "literally" or "literally literally"? I can't think of a time when this problem has occurred around me.

    Since the figurative literal is often used with hyperbole, I can only think of cases where something literally amazing has happened and you're trying to convey that.

    "That chef was so into making his dish, he literally caught on fire." Ok, was he on fire or "on fire"? But such cases come up for me only but rarely. It seems to me that the main need for saying "literally literally" would be if one wanted to be pedantic–"I'm making a seemingly hyperbolic claim, and it's very important to me that you realize it is actually true without any clarifying information outside of this statement."

    And of course, @Jerry Friedman, "bad" was a word that meant unambiguously "not good", but people seem to have gotten over its slangy use as "extremely good/cool." Is that because it's (quite) out of fad, or because it really doesn't cause much confusion in context? (Or both?)

  13. Spell Me Jeff said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    Saying "figuratively" to alert your listener to the approach of a figure sounds ridiculous and is generally not needed. Small children, people with brain defects, and folks from other cultures may not recognize figurative speech, but everyone else does just fine. I know I would question the social competence of someone who said, "I figuratively shot down my colleague." It's weirdly unidiomatic. And anyone who barks out, "You mean figuratively, don't you?" is not going to sit on any committees that I chair.

  14. James said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    Yes, of course the battle has already been won, but John Cowan's question is still a perplexing one. Why was any battle needed? Every word can be used figuratively. How, then, could someone object to the word 'literally' being used figuratively?
    Jerry Friedman's answer is not satisfying. Why should the fact that 'literally' means 'not figuratively' entail that it cannot be used figuratively? We use the word 'unspoken' in speech even though it means 'not in speech'; we use the word 'nonverbal' in the most verbal possible way; and so on.

    And yet…

  15. Chandra said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    @Jahi Chappell – Certainly the correct interpretation can usually be inferred from context, but that's not to say that there's never any valid reason to add an intensifier to "literally".

    For me, it's more that the original sense of "literally" has been so watered down by its newer (over)use, that when I want to convey the sense of "actually, literally, non-figuratively", I feel like I need a stronger way to express it. For example, if I were talking about travels in Nepal I would be inclined to mention people I saw who were "quite literally starving to death", because the common usage of phrases like "I'm literally starving" (when your lunch is a bit late) have taken some of the force away from the word.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    Is it significant that some (many?) other intensifiers seem to demonstrate sort of a semantic inversion? For example, one can thank someone for having been "awfully thoughtful" or "terribly nice," which certainly does NOT connote that their thoughtfulness was awful or their niceness was terrible. (Yeah, yeah, "awful" itself got a bit inverted and no longer carries any connotations of "awe"; that's why we need "awesome.") Note that these are locutions that might be uttered by your quite proper great-aunt who would never use "bad" to mean "really good." Although in the bad-for-good context, consider the Eastern New England vernacular intensifier "wicked" (as in "wicked cool" or "a wicked good time"), which I hope is still current although I daresay I haven't heard it from any informants under the age of 30. If there's a pattern there, the intensifier usage of "literally" might be part of it. But that gets us back to the question of why it would selectively attract peevological ire to a greater extent than other constructions would could be subject to the same objections, and I have no suggestions to offer there.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    @James: I was partly just giving a snappy answer.

    But… most words can be used figuratively (John Cowan's "one and only" may not have been literally true), but for some of us would have liked to have some kind of bedrock, some way of knowing when something was meant literally. Just as we would have liked a way to say we were being serious without being suspected of amplifying a joke. Exempting literally and seriously and a few others from figurative use would have been convenient.

    @Chandra: On the other hand, I'll bet if you say that you saw people in Nepal who were starving, people will know what you mean, or even if you write at and people don't have the clues of your facial expression and tone of voice.

    @Jahi Chappell: Bad meaning "good" is still doing all right here in New Mexico.

    @Spell Me Jeff: Thanks for the tip on getting out of committees. :-)

  18. Faldone said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    I noticed that Rachel Zoe says , "literally", "lit-rally" and "litterly" but I don't see any correlation between her pronunciation and the literal meaning of the word.

  19. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    To my dying day, I will continue to scoff at people who misuse "literally".

  20. Chandra said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    @Jerry Friedman – If you will re-read my comment, you will see that I'm not saying they wouldn't understand me. I'm saying that the emotional impact of the word "literally" in such contexts has been drained by its overuse. Sometimes you may be content to impart the simple fact that people in Nepal are starving. Other times you may wish to try to impart a more vivid sense of what it was like to see such people. To me, the intensifier "literally" on its own is no longer very useful in the latter scenario.

    @J. W. Brewer – That (possibly outdated) usage of the word "wicked" isn't limited to Eastern New England – it is (or was) widespread here in Canada too.

  21. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    from Kingsley Amis' "Lucky Jim" (1954):

    "I literally truly Fowler's English Usage didn't know whether I was awake or dreaming."

  22. Bill said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    Presumably the first time someone said "I was literally shaking in my boots", the meaning was something like

    "Here I thought that 'shaking in my boots' was nothing but a cliche — but my feet absolutely were shaking — I was that scared.."

    Now, when the same expression is used, the meaning is more like "I can't say 'shaking in my boots' — that would be a cliche. Instead I'll say 'literally shaking in my boots!' That'll be vivid!!!"

    Unfortunately there's no way to keep a vivid expression, or an honest one, from becoming a mere cliche.

  23. Ken Brown said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    "Actually" actually carries that force now.

  24. Nathan Myers said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    Does anybody here think that most people who use "literally" have the faintest notion what it means? How about "exponentially"?

    We will just need to invent new terms for those properties, and avoid using them among the illiterate and innumerate. I propose a "progressively" for the latter, and the "liberally" for the former. Someday we will need to draft "expotentially", but I hope not soon.

  25. Jennifer said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    I've caught myself misusing "literally", but I still laugh at people who use it intensively. A friend, speaking of when she had to take travel sickness pills, described the torture of when "you're literally sitting on a bus for four hours," and I cut her off giggling unsympathetically at the mental image of her perched, miserably, atop the bus as it puttered along.
    This is worse, though, when "literally" is used in a context where there is no immediately recognizable figurative reading: "I literally punched him in the face." There's some genuine confusion there: how would you figuratively punch someone?

  26. Chandra said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

    @Jennifer – "Literally sitting on the bus for four hours" is perfectly blameless, as far as I'm concerned. "On the bus" is not some kind of idiom for "inside the bus", or whatever – "on" is the only preposition universally used to denote location in that particular phrase. Nobody realistically takes it to mean "on top of the bus".

  27. Heather J said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    Perhaps some people do get literal word rage.

  28. Sili said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    To my dying day, I will continue to scoff at people who misuse "literally".

    I'll literally count the days till then.

  29. Jenny said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    Like Marc, I say "figuratively," or sometimes "metaphorically" because I think it is a funnier word. Misuse of "literally" is my biggest peeve, though using "me and him" as a subject comes close.

  30. Roger Lustig said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    @Adrian: stay away from Dubliners.

  31. James said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    (@ Jennifer, and indirectly @Chandra)
    Interesting. I remember some years ago someone, an academic of some kind (I can't remember what persuasion) insisted that when we say that there are principles "in the law" we speak metaphorically, because the literal meaning of "in" is the sense of physical containment. I was dumbfounded. And I'm amazed that someone would take the "on" of "on the bus" to be figurative.

    Americans say we live "on Main Street". Brits say you live "in High Street". Which is literally true?

  32. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 9:51 pm

    I know that we at Language Log hesitate to get on board with the peevologists, but it makes perfect sense to me that figurative use of the word "literally" would bother people more than figurative use of other words.

    "Literally" isn't just any old adverb like "loudly" or "coldly" — it's a word that has a history of indicating "I'm not joking" or "This actually happened" or "This is the straightforward truth."

    I mean, sure, if the expression "straightforward truth" started getting used in a jokey way to mean the opposite of what it now means, then of course, if enough people say it the new way, it thereby acquires the new meaning — but I would understand if some people found that frustrating.

  33. Xmun said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    What about this figurative use of "monolithic"? The quotation comes from Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, 2009), p. 162:

    "Near by on Fifth Avenue the old order was imposingly represented by the monolithic mansions of the Astors and Vanderbilts, while all around was evidence of the new, with fast-rising skyscrapers, neon signs, honking motor traffic, the subway, electric trams and elevated railway."

    I don't like it. I think "grand" would have been a better choice of word. Moreover, I'd have spelt "Near by" as "Nearby". However, I'm thoroughly enjoying the book . . .

  34. Xmun said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    Oh, tutae. I should have looked at the dictionary definition of "monolithic". There's a subsense: "(of a building) very large and characterless".

  35. Ellen K. said,

    January 28, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    Frankly, I find the claim that people are using "literally" to mean "figuratively" more annoying than the non-literal use of literally. No, they don't mean figuratively, and they should not replace it with "figuratively". Doing might make an accurate statement, but not one that means what they want to convey.

    Personally, this extended usage of "literally" is outside my instinctive understanding of the word. However, I prefer to be entertained by such usage rather than annoyed. It really paints some amusing mental pictures. :)

  36. Mark F. said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    J.W. Brewer — I wouldn't call intensive 'literally' a case of semantic inversion. Explicitly marking a usage as figurative would be weird, so people are definitely not using 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'.

    When someone says "LeBron James was on fire last night", the meaning of the sentence isn't that James was actually on fire, but I would argue that the phrase "on fire" still means "in flames". You then take that overall image and interpret it figuratively.

    In the same way, when someone says "LeBron James was literally on fire last night", the word "literally" still means "literally", just as the phrase "on fire" still means "on fire". This time you take the image of LeBron James being literally on fire and interpret it figuratively. The role "literally" is playing is to try to make you entertain the fanciful image for just a a little longer, and a little more vividly. It doesn't make for terribly good writing because it's such a cheap rhetorical ploy.

    Because it's such an obvious ploy, there's a "treadmill" for it. "Just" and "really" have gone through the same process. Oh, and "positively". And I have heard people use "literally" and carefully explain that they really did mean "literally", knowing full well that I would know that they didn't.

    All that said, the phenomenon of words like "frightfully" is interesting, I agree.

  37. C Thornett said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    A certain subset of UK politicians used claim 'I'm literally being crucified' when under attack. Unwarranted hyperbole and possible blasphemy in the same statement. The complete phrase seems to have retired with them.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 1:03 am

    @Chandra: You're right, I wasn't really responding to what you said. However, I think literally was never an effective intensifier for starving, and neither is quite literally. If you want to impart a more vivid sense, the only way I see is to say more about what you saw and how you felt.

    @Mark F.: Quite has been pushed under by that treadmill too.

    In my mind, the category next to words such as dreadfully and terrific (which evolved even farther) is the words for violence that turn into "excellent", from Yankee Doodle's "slapping stallion" to kick-ass and killer.

  39. GeorgeW said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    Do any intensifiers arrive on the scene new and underived? Even 'very,' which I think most accept without question, was derived from Latin meaning true or truthful. When we say 'that was a very good movie' it would not likely be interpreted as a true or truthful good movie.

  40. John Walden said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    You overhear yourself being talked about and later you say "My ears were literally burning". Anyone who thinks you mean "Flames were issuing from my ears" should be asked if they think 'punk rock' means a large stone where young strumpets gather, and if not why not. Change happens.

  41. John Walden said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    I should have said 'Anyone who pretends to think you mean'.

  42. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    Regarding the question of why "literally" should be the only word which cannot be used figuratively, many language peeves take the implicit form of claiming that the particular word being peeved about is somehow an exception from general patterns of English usage.

    Consider the recurrent complaints about a noun being verbed or a verb being nouned. Anyone who has spent two minutes with a dictionary and paid attention for those two minutes knows that this is a perfectly unremarkable English pattern. The person doing the peeving inevitably uses words which were originally nouns as verbs, and words which were originally verbs as nouns. It would be nearly impossible not to, and you would have to consult the OED constantly to determine which was the original part of speech. Does this stop the peeving? Of course not.

    Similarly, consider peeving about the supposed misuse of lie/lay. Another general pattern of English is that verbs can be used both transitively and intransitively. The claim that "I am going to lay down." is ungrammatical is implicitly based on the assertion that lie/lay are exceptions to this pattern. There are interesting historical reasons for why the lie/lay distinction remains in English (to the extent that it actually does) but I rarely see any argument for why it should.

  43. Kathleen said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    My nephew gets very annoyed whenever anyone (anyone here defined as "any non-famine sufferer") says "I am literally starving to death!" The predictable result is that everyone in my family now uses "I am literally starving to death!" to mean "Sure, I could probably go for a little snack about now."

  44. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    @Richard Hershberger: You used two transitive verbs in your last paragraph—"use" and "base"—neither of which can be intransitive in those senses.

    The particular objection to intransitive lay is that the intransitive verb already exists: lie. As you know, there are two other pairs like that (that I can think of): sit and set, and fall and fell. Those of us who consider I'm going to lay down non-standard are generally pretty consistent in considering I'm going to set down and *That tree is going to fell equally non-standard.

    Certainly you can argue that at least for lie and lay in American English, the vox pop has spoken, but I don't see the argument based on inconsistency.

  45. ecl said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

    My 6th grader reports a use of "literally" among his classmates that I've never heard, in expressions like, "I mean, literally!" where it substitutes the word "really" expressing disbelief. Has anyone else heard this?

  46. Brett said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I don't know about "base," but "use" certainly can be used intransitively in that sense—"I don't ever use," or, "He uses almost every single day," for example. (I think that usage is a comparatively recent development, however.)

    In the case of lie and lay (or sit and set; although fell is sufficiently uncommon that I had never thought about the third pair before), you have two verbs that developed from a common root. Over time, they have gradually developed different preferred meanings, but this preference is not exclusive. It seems that lie and lay have each been used both transitively and intransitively over their entire histories.

  47. Rubrick said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    Slightly tangentially, some years back a friend of mine coined (or very likely re-coined) the term "literalism" for cases when a figure of speech like "he saw the writing on the wall" or "it's not rocket science" is used in its literal sense ("It's not rocket science — it's actually more in the area of control theory.")

  48. Haamu said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    Having mostly lurked here for several years, I have often wanted to ask whether the anti-peevers see any inconsistency in peeving about peeving. (I wouldn't want to tell them to stop, lest I be accused of peeving about peeving about peeving.)

    I indulge in a few peeves myself. The ones that seem most valid are those that lament a loss of the language's precision or expressive power. I would place in this class the migration of literally from its "literal" sense to being yet another nonspecific intensifier. It isn't merely jarring, nor does it merely (or actually?) make the speaker sound uneducated, either of which is a pretty thin justification for a peeve. No, this change in literally actually, in my view, makes the language harder to use — and the new sense doesn't provide any perceptible offsetting value.

    Now, you can get metaprescriptivist on me and tell me not to peeve this peeve. My response is that in any evolutionary system, not all mutations are good. Isn't peeving just part of the environmental pushback that tests whether a given mutation is fit or not? Shouldn't we just observe the mutation and the peeve and move on, awaiting the outcome?

    [(myl) Speaking for myself, I take the attitude towards linguistic peeving that H.L. Mencken took towards "the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances": he saw these activities as "so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows".]

  49. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    Ellen K: Certainly it is true that people are not using 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'; rather, they are using it to mean 'very' or the like. The statements in question are figurative, but that's not what the term means.

    However, I suspect that when people say 'they are using "literally" to mean "figuratively"', they are in fact using 'mean' in a non-standard (or at least non-historical) way, where 'use A to mean B' in fact means 'use A where B would be appropriate'. I suspect this use of 'mean' is in fact quite common – might it even be considered peevish to obejct to it?

  50. m.m. said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    Chris said,

    I now say "literally literally" to distinguish actual literality.

    Ken Brown said,

    "Actually" actually carries that force now.

    I've been using "actually" to distinguish from "literally/figuratively" since the early 00's in high school, when I can recall hearing "literally" being used majoritively to mean "figuratively".

    I find rage from the shift in usage a bit silly. It's not that hard to adopt a replacement, though I was never a fan of the sounds of /ˈlɪtərəli/. Something about the elles and the schwas just feels weird.

  51. Geoff Nunberg said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

    I did a piece on this about ten years ago in California Lawyer. One point I made is that "In the press, literally is almost always used in a correct if tiresome way, most often in cute headlines like "Eddie Van Halen Gets Hip — Literally" (a hip replacement for the singer) and "Microsoft Software Literally Has Bugs —Thousands of Silverfish Found in Windows NT Packaging." In fact it's not easy to use literally in a way that is at once literal and fresh.

  52. a George said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    what, me worry? The most literal "literally"-statement I know is "read my lips"!

  53. Rod Johnson said,

    January 29, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

    Somebody up there suggested that this use of "literally" is a way of acknowledging that what they're about to say is a cliche or some other tired expression, but it's appropriate so they're going to say it anyway. That feels right to me. So "I am literally starving" means "I know it's a bit over the top to say I'm starving, but that gives you some idea of how hungry I feel." It's not quite an intensifier, and doesn't quite mean "figuratively"–it kind of says "OK, not really, but you know what I mean."

    There is another (marginal) causative pair besides lie/lay, sit/set, and fall/fell, by the way. It involves one of the more obscure verbs in English, ret, which means "cause to rot." As far as I know, it's only used for flax nowadays.

  54. цarьchitect said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 12:08 am

    My girlfriend has started saying "liguratively" as a compromise. It seems to work pretty well.

  55. Adrian Bailey (UK) said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    @John Walden You don't get it. If you say your ears are literally burning, I don't think that flames are issuing from your lugholes, what I think is that you're an idiot.

  56. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    @ Adrian Bailey (UK): I wonder whather you have read any of the articles linked in the original post? You seem to be making a bald assertion that the usage you dislike is wrong (I can find nothing in your contribution to support that assertion). My view of peeves of this sort is that when faced with a choice of following the example of great writers or the prejudices of rude and aggressive pedants, I'll take the writers every time.

  57. Brett said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

    I would have no trouble accepting, "My ears are literally burning," if the speaker were actually blushing so much that their ears had turned red.

  58. un malpaso said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    The main peeve here that seems to crop up again and and again is the anti-hyperbole peeve. There is a class of people who simply can't abide language being used in any other than as "precise transmission of ideas." This is a common characteristic of Aspergers Syndrome, but it seems to occur along the whole spectrum of "literal-minded folks.".

    I remember hearing a friend in college complain about how people "lied" when telling stories. His example of a "lie" was when someone says, "There were like a million people at that party." He didn't understand that ALL language is figurative, and that people who use hyperbole are not actually idiots, but are in fact trying to convey the emotional effect of a situation – in this case, the "dazzle" of a crowd of people. Like it or not, language will be used in this way forever despite the complaints of the peeved… simply because LANGUAGE IS FIGURATIVE AT ITS CORE, and metaphor is one of the fundamental tools in which our brains create meaning.

  59. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 12:45 am

    @un malpaso: I haven't noticed any peeves here about hyperbole. Indeed, the strongest peeve, from Adrian Bailey, used a hyperbole: "what I think is that you're an idiot." The only peeves are about "strengthening" hyperboles with literally. Your literal-minded friend is in a different category, I'd say.

    @Haamu: The best anti-peeve peeve is when anti-peevers criticize non-linguists for using grammar to mean prescriptive grammar.

    @Brett: You're right, I'd forgotten that use has an intransitive (absolute) sense, but as far as I know it applies only when talking about drugs.

    According to the NSOED, lie has had the meaning "put in a lying position" since Old English, but lay gained the meaning "assume a lying position" only in Middle English. (Those definitions aren't quotations.) So unless someone has better information, it hasn't been used intransitively for its whole history. Though I admit Middle English was a long time ago.

  60. John Ward said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    I wonder… do any of you get upset when people say "as it were"? Would if it bother you if I said, "My ears were, as it were, burning"?

  61. Elliott P. said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    I had a professor in grad school who claimed that literally should only be used to refer to "the author's original intent," not the "bare meaning" of a phrase. So if an author wrote, "his ears were burning," and the author meant that he knew someone was gossiping about him, then in that text the literal definition of "his ears were burning" would be "he was being gossiped" about; the literal meaning of "his ears were burning" would NOT be "his ears were on fire" in that text, since that wasn't the author's message. Is this a valid distinction?

  62. James Parkin said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and Brett: I seem to remember that the intransitive / causative distinction in English verbs is actually very old, belonging to common Germanic. The difference between 'lie' and 'lay' results from a vowel shift shared with other dialects; Modern German, for example, has a similar pair (liegen/ legen) with the same distinction, not to mention sitzen/setzen, fallen/fällen, and some others. In general, the intransitive forms are supposed to reflect the original verb root, while the transitive/causative forms were derived by suffixing. The distinction was less a matter of gradual divergence, and more like a regular grammatical feature. The suffix later disappeared, but not before prompting a vowel shift in West Germanic.

    I'm working from old memory here, and am by no means an expert on these matters. I'm happy to be corrected if somebody knows better.

  63. Richard Hershberger said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    @Jerry Friedman: The point is not that every English verb actively has both transitive and intransitive senses, but that they could. The "use" example is nicely illustrative of this, with an intransitive sense developing recently. The pattern is that verbs are available for both transitive and intransitive use.

    As James Parkin points out, the lie/lay distinction is very old, going back to Old English. Old English had lots of verb pairs like this, with the vast majority of them collapsing together over the past thousand years. Lie/lay, along with sit/set and fall/fell, are tail enders. Lie/lay, at least, showed signs of collapsing as well in the 17th century, but then we were blessed with grammarians to show us the way. It is sufficiently foreign to modern English idiom that what distinction remains is on life support of constant peeving.

  64. John Walden said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 9:55 am

    Adrian Bailey: I can't see any objection to "My ears were literally burning" that doesn't also hold for "My ears were burning".

    'Literally' is quite simply no longer used only to mean 'in the literal sense'. This newer usage has been employed and peeved about for well over a century:

    "Alongside its definition of "literally," the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary prints a stern warning against misuse. It notes that in 1863 a writer claimed, "For the last four years I literally coined money." No, he didn't: coining literally means making coins by stamping metal…. in 1906 the Westminster Gazette said a politician "literally bubbled over with gratitude"

    There's been a lot of linguistic change since then. Why not just accept it? You don't object to the newish meaning of 'gay' or to (literally) hundreds of other shifts in the last hundred years. Or do you?

    Perhaps there has to be some kind of timely rearguard against change in language. Nevertheless, this particular battle is over. Put your hands up! Though I'm not sure that the battle metaphor works. Linguistic change only has one winner and it's always the same one.

  65. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    Rise/raise also fits into the same pattern as lie/lay. My sense is that lie and lay are used with overlapping senses much more frequently than rise/raise, fall/fell (ok, maybe "fell" just doesn't get said that much by non-lumberjacks) and, outside of certain regional dialects, sit/set. ("I was laying there" seems ok to my ear in informal register for pretty much all versions of AmEng, but "I was setting there" seems not only informal but marked as "rustic.") I don't have a theory as to why that should be the case, but there doesn't seem to be much peevological pressure to keep up semantic boundaries between, e.g., rise and raise because they are more frequently respected in practice w/o such pressure. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I even consciously understood "raise" as embodying the concept "cause to rise" until a linguistics class in college.

  66. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Duh, to answer my own question, the most obvious reason lie/lay are frequently blurred is because "lie" is inflected into "lay" in the past tense, so the same ablaut is used for that as for the related causative/transitive verb. Whereas "rise" goes to "rose" with "raise" being a different ablaut. "Sat" is perhaps closer to "set" than "rose" to "raise"? Fall does to go "fell" in past tense, but the transitive sense of "fell" meaning "cause to fall" is perhaps sufficiently marginal as not to be affected?

  67. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Rise/raise—I knew I was missing one. Intransitive raise up is fairly common in informal American English. In general, I think the peevological pressure is proportional to the volume.

    By the way, there are hits on fall a tree.

    @James Parkin and Brett: The OED gives 1387 as the first date for causative lie and c. 1300 as the first date of lay meaning lie. So indeed, as Richard Hershberger also said, they haven't overlapped for their whole history, though they have for some centuries.

    @Richard: I think there's still a distinction between lie and lay even in informal English. First, I've heard (in alt.usage.english, for instance) that this intransitive lay isn't nearly as common in Britain as it is in America. Second, causative lie isn't all that common. (The OED says it's "now rare", but that may be going too far.) In my experience, it's used only for objects that can stand or sit. You can find sentences like "Lie it down on its side and lay down another coat of paint."

    I once searched for a while before finding this video and transcript where you can read and hear the same person saying "guide it and lie it down flat" and "it's laying pretty flat". (Around 4:10 to 4:30.)

    I'd hate to say that some transitive verb could never become intransitive or vice-versa, but I wouldn't say that "The claim that 'I'm going to lay down.' is ungrammatical is implicitly based on the assertion that lie/lay are exceptions to this pattern [that verbs can be transitive and intransitive]." It's a claim that it hasn't happened to the specific verbs lie and lay. After all, I can say that *This verb uses both transitively and intransitively is ungrammatical without saying anything about English verbs in general. To be sensible about lie and lay, though, it has to be a claim that it hasn't happened in standard English or certain dialects.

  68. Azimuth said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    Aye littorally red awl thee caw mints. Eye dew knot sea ya knee shoe. Sum pea pull ewes oh she Ann Nick mod if hires. Sew watt ell sis knew?

  69. Rod Johnson said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 1:10 am

    @J. W. Brewer: I can't claim to be an authority on lumberjack talk, but I've known a few and, surprisingly, the word they *all* used for "cause [a tree] to fall" was not "fell" but "fall," as in "let's fall that tree." So "fell" actually seems to be used, if my sample is representative, by NON-lumberjacks.

  70. dporpentine said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 7:01 am

    Last week, on a long bus ride, I had to listen to a second-year law student at a pretty well-respected university use "legitimately" and "legit" in the same places that people use the figurative sense of "literal"–as in, "I was legitimately scared shitless." And: "That was legit ridiculous."

    For what this is worth, I'll note that she was white, female, and in her mid twenties. Because she was so loud, I know her whole life story and can add with confidence that she's from the Northeast.

    Does anyone have any sense whether this is a widespread usage? Perhaps a consequence of peeves against "literally"?

    [(myl) A long-standing sense of legitimate is "being exactly as purposed : neither spurious nor false" (in Merriam-Webster's gloss, with the example "a legitimate grievance". The OED's gloss is "Normal, regular; conformable to a recognized standard type", with citations back to 1669. And legit has been used as an abbreviated form at least since the OED's earliest citation in 1897. The Harvard Monthly for 1896 has this:

    The maiden Aunt, Fraülein Franziska von Wendlowski, is a creation for whom those who love to laugh honestly at what is legitimately ridiculous in human nature must ever be grateful.

    What's new and interesting in your examples is the mainly the adverbial use of the reduced form, I think. ]

  71. Alexey Salmin said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:02 am

    Have you seen the relevant oatmeal comic?

  72. Robin said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:33 am

    @dporpentine: It's definitely a widespread usage in some corners of the internet (corners with lots of twenty-something women, for example, and possibly others). A Google search of "I'm legit crying" seems to turn up primarily Twitter, Tumblr, and LiveJournal, which matches my intuition. (Other examples include, "I'm legit dehydrated," "I'm legit dying," "I'm legit so jealous," "I'm legit so fucking scared for exams," "I'm legit freaking out," "I'm legit hungover," "I'm like legit really upset right now," etc.)

    I'd guess that a lot of the people who use it online also use it offline, but I'm less sure about that, and I don't have any statistics.

  73. Dominik Lukes said,

    February 25, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    It took me a while but I tried to do a bit of corpus wrangling on literally. In case anyone cares anymore:

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