Global drop in GNP?

« previous post | next post »

Is it my imagination, or has there been a drop in GNP (Gross National Peeving) across the Anglophone world? I'm not seeing nearly the volume of "Angry linguistic mobs with torches" that I (think I) did a decade ago.

So the recently viral story about this sign on the door of the Continental bar makes me kind of nostalgic:

It's also interesting that the bar owner, Trigger Smith, has eighty sixed all uses of literally, not just the ones that are stigmatized as contrary to the word's etymology.

Of course the stigmatized usage has a long and semi-distinguished history — the OED lists it this way:

1.c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

1769 F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83 He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.
1801 Spirit of Farmers' Museum 262 He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees.
1825 J. Denniston Legends Galloway 99 Lady Kirkclaugh, who, literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart.
1863 F. A. Kemble Jrnl. Resid. Georgian Plantation 105 For the last four years..I literally coined money.
1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

And of course very and really have trod literally the same path from truth to intensification — but they apparently made the journey early enough not to run afoul of the semantic immigration authorities.

The sign's gratuitous "Kardashianism" dig has sparked claims of sexism — see Clint Rainey, "Bar That Banned ‘Literally’ Now Being Trashed Figuratively by Online Critics", Grub Street 1/26/2018. FWIW, my guess is that the association between literally and gender is driven more by prejudice and confirmation bias than by any literal differences in usage frequency.

Update — I should note that GNP is apparently on the rise in France — see "Écriture inclusive", 10/9/2017. And perhaps also in China — "Language vigilantism", 1/24/2018.

Update #2 — Raised from my response to a comment:

In the Fisher collection of transcribed conversational speech, collected in 2003, the count of instances of "literally" is

294 out of 9,858,778 words in 10,104 call sides from male speakers
308 out of 12,613,130 words in 13,292 call sides from female speakers

Thus the male rate is 1000000*294/9858788 = 29.8 per million words
and the female rate is 1000000*308/12613130 = 24.4 per million words


  1. postageincluded said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 8:31 pm

    I'm not really one to peeve but I'll never be reconciled to "literally" as an intensifier because that allows me to carry on laughing at the "Commentatorballs" (previously Colemanballs) column in Private Eye magazine.

    "In his youth Michael Owen was literally a greyhound".
    "They've literally got no players left – and then with 95 minutes gone they score."
    "England should literally put Algeria to bed."
    "This is the sort of pitch which literally castrates a bowler."
    "On the Lions tour in 1997 Mark Regan and Barry Williams blew up, but it was literally handbags."
    etc. etc. etc.

  2. Jan Freeman said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 11:02 pm

    I do think there has been a decrease in the GNP, and some combination of interested journalists (including me, when I did that stuff) and the internet's making linguistics (and reasonable language discussion) more accessible. Just thinking of Language Log alums, there's Ben Zimmer writing for the Wall Street Journal and Geoff Pullum blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, along with other linguists and non-linguists not inclined to peevery. Then there's John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun, who doesn't just preach reasonable language attitudes, he gets to practice them. And Linguist Twitter is crowded with pros who blog and podcast and tweet to each other and us amateurs, inviting all to learn and enjoy. Language Log surely played a huge role in this evolution, so thanks to you all. In this one way, at least, it's a better world today.

  3. Jan Freeman said,

    January 26, 2018 @ 11:04 pm

    OK, left a verb out of that first sentence: " … is surely part of the reason." Or something like that.

  4. Monte Davis said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 4:10 am

    Seconding Jan's post, and her gratitude. The peevers used to take it for granted that they were citizen auxiliaries for the authoritative pros. Lately I see more of them meta-peeving about how hard it is to do God's, Strunk's, and White's work against a shameless descriptivist fifth column of "people who should know better."

    On to Madrid!

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 5:21 am

    It seems oddly illibermanian to just put this trend out there with a couple of hedges but no data. Well, I guess it’s unfair to expect a Breakfast Experiment at eight in the evening.

    [(myl) In the Fisher collection of transcribed conversational speech, collected in 2003, the count of instances of "literally" is

    294 out of 9,858,778 words in 10,104 call sides from male speakers
    308 out of 12,613,130 words in 13,292 call sides from female speakers

    Thus the male rate is 1000000*294/9858788 = 29.8 per million words
    and the female rate is 1000000*308/12613130 = 24.4 per million words


    Is there a way of searching Google’s historical hits for e.g. “your grammar” (which I’d expect to usually occur in a peevish context)? Like an N-gram but for web not books?

  6. JPL said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 5:26 am

    When they said, "If you actually start a sentence with …", they had to catch themselves from saying, "If you literally start a sentence with …". (They needn't have included the last two sentences.)

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    @Jan Freeman: Geoff Pullum is indeed "not inclined to peevery" until he's stung with a misuse of "passive".

  8. Shawn Noble Maeder said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    Agree with Jan, but note also that in Trump's America we have so much else to moan about on Twitter.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 10:35 am

    Tssss. Right behind the first word of that sign, there's a comma missing. What is the world coming to…

  10. MattF said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    I'd be tempted to walk in wearing a T-shirt saying "I, Literally."

  11. David said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    Or "I. Literally. Can't. Even."

  12. efnenu said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 2:03 pm

    Is it undisputed that the 19th-century examples have 'literally' in its intensifying sense? They seem like 'quod vocatur' to me, but I haven't dug into any of that.

  13. aka_darrell said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 2:13 pm

    Or "Like. I. Literally. Can't. Even."

  14. Mark P said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

    I can reliably find a peeve on Quora (a site where experts are supposed to answer questions for which answers are hard to find otherwise, but then, this is the Internet, so it generally devolves into something closer to an unmoderated comment section). The peeve is generally found on questions about democracy in the US. It follows the form "the US is a republic, not a democracy, because ancient Greece."

  15. Mr Punch said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    Agree with Jan Freeman – but it'd be an even better world today if she were still writing for the Globe.

  16. Breffni said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 4:31 am

    I take issue with the OED's assertion that intensifier-literally "reverses the original sense […] (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’)". Intensifer-literally does not mean "figuratively or metaphorically", it means – as their own definition has it – "to be taken in the strongest admissible sense". This idea that literally is (mis)used to mean figuratively is certainly out there, but it's muddled and I'm surprised to see it in the OED.

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 5:40 am

    @Breffni: I think you're too hard on the OED's definition. They are saying that the original meaning of literally is 'not figuratively or metaphorically', which seems about right to me. They are not saying that the intensifier meaning is 'figuratively or metaphorically'. I agree that saying the original meaning gets 'reversed' could be understood that way, but to me it seems that they're simply saying that the intensifier meaning in some way contradicts or undoes the original meaning – which again seems about right to me.

  18. JPL said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 6:19 am

    When there is the question of the "literal" vs. the "figurative" use of a lexeme, it's important to distinguish between the normal use of the lexeme, where reference is to an object that belongs to the normal denotation of that item, and the metaphorical use of the item, where reference is to an object that does not belong to that denotation. E.g., the lexeme 'mire' typically (normally) refers to that sticky mixture of earth and water that impedes the progress of carts, etc., but 'mire' used to refer to the fluid that courses through human veins, hemoglobin, (e.g., "The fury and the mire of human veins.") is a metaphorical use, where that red fluid is understood in terms of, or as an extension of, the (normal, i.e, existing) meaning of the lexeme 'mire', so that the reader is invited to consider the idea that our red fluid pumped by the heart is perhaps involved somehow in whatever it is that impedes a person from attaining an admirable goal, that prevents a mere living bird from attaining eternal perfection, etc. (Not to mention the fact that the lexeme normally used to refer to that red fluid has developed its own metaphorical senses, and so the resonance is evoked.)

    The sense of the lexeme 'literally' as used colloquially these days and objected to in the sign has yet to be fully described and unified with the previously existing category, beyond the OED entry above. It's not that the word "literally" "means 'figuratively' or 'metaphorically'", but that the word "literally", in the cases referred to, is specifying (as an adverbial) a metaphorical use of the word it modifies, countering it and expressing that the speaker wants that word interpreted, counterfactually, in the normal sense.

  19. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

    It's particularly funny because I am a staunch (is that possible??) NON-peever and descriptionist in nearly all cases… but "literally" is my own personal peeve that I guard jealously. I don't jump down others' throats when they use it colloquially, but I try very hard in my own speech to reserve it strictly for "literal" as close as I can muster.

    It's a useful word to keep in store for those cases where you have to specify that indeed, no hyperbole at all is being used in this case – sort of a linguistic self-critic marker, one of those ways that language puts a curb on itself lest it get too divorced from reality.

    And if "literally" falls by the wayside for this purpose, we should at least start burnishing its next replacement: maybe "objectively" ? :)

  20. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    Self correction: "descriptivist" not "descriptionist" it's early and I haven't had enough coffee

  21. BZ said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

    I just became aware of "what the actual fuck" which, apparently, was common at some point, but has fallen out of use. What I find interesting about this expression is that I'm not aware of "actual" being used as an intensifier in this way, and that it's not intensifying "fuck" but the entire expression.

  22. Mark S said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

  23. Graeme said,

    February 2, 2018 @ 4:43 am

    Since they truly won't turf anyone out, isn't the bar guilty of the inverse sin?

RSS feed for comments on this post