When I go on radio shows to talk about English language usage, talk inevitably turns to words and phrases that people find annoying. (The topic is sure to light up the call-in lines.) Among the top peeves I hear about are three expressions that get used in an inverted fashion: literally used non-literally to emphasize a figure of speech, irregardless used to mean regardless, and could care less used to mean couldn't care less. What's with all the flip-flopping?

These three usage bugaboos came up this week, since I went on the CBC radio show "Q" to talk about the peculiarly backwards way that literally gets used to emphasize figurative language (usually of the hyperbolic variety, as in "I'm literally going to explode if I eat one more Swedish meatball"). Then, on the show's website, they ran a listener contest on "the most annoying misused words," and irregardless and could care less quickly established themselves as frontrunners. Even congenial Canadians were bugged by these.

I've been fielding calls on literally lately because of a widely read Boston Globe piece ("Literally the Most Misused Word") that quoted me saying that I thought non-literal literally had become ubiquitous. But as I argued on the CBC, I don't think this ubiquity is something we have to worry much about: the primary sense of literally is still holding on strong, even while the word has developed a secondary sense in colloquial use that contradicts the primary one. (This makes it a "contronym," much like sanction or cleave.) To paraphrase our recent book excerpt from John McWhorter, language can be messy that way, but we still manage to communicate with each other just fine. In fact, as I pointed out in a Word Routes column in 2008, literally has been emphasizing hyperbolic figures of speech since the 18th century, and yet the world hasn't ended. And as I also noted, we blithely use really and truly for things that aren't real or true — so why have I never heard a single complaint about either of those?

Still, that doesn't mean I think non-literal literally is fine and dandy — I wouldn't use it myself, and when I catch others using it I occasionally cringe. Usually, I just try to enjoy the comedic potential for interpreting hyperboles literally. So when I was watching the broadcast of the thrilling Women's World Cup quarterfinals between the United States and Brazil last month, I chuckled when I heard announcer Ian Darke say of the American women's come-from-behind win, "The U.S.A. — quite literally, really — back from the dead!" (Zombie soccer!) The laughs continued in the finals, when the U.S. player Abby Wambach said of her Japanese counterpart (and former teammate) Homare Sawa, "I couldn't be prouder of Sawa than for literally putting her team on her back and carrying them to the final." Both sports commentators and athletes themselves can't seem to get enough of literally as an intensifier.

Like non-literal literally, irregardless is a lot older than you might think. The first known appearance of it is in a 1795 poem entitled "The Old Woman and Her Tabby" that appeared in the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser of Charleston, South Carolina:

 

But death, irregardless of tenderest ties,
Resolv'd the good Betty, at length, to bereave:
He strikes — the poor fav'rite reluctantly dies!
Breaks her mistress's heart — both descend to the grave.

 

Irregardless is often explained as a kind of blend, combining irrespective and regardless into one illogical mishmash. But Larry Horn, a linguist at Yale who is an expert in negation, has pointed out that in the 16th and 17th centuries, words of the form un-X-less were quite common. The Oxford English Dictionary records such examples as unboundless, unfathomless, unhelpless, unmatchless, unmerciless, unnumberless, unremorseless, and unshameless. In all of these cases, the un- could safely be removed (unboundless simply meant boundless, for instance). And so it appears that irregardless emerged from this same impulse to pile up more negatives than strictly necessary.

"I could care less" moves in the other direction: instead of over-negation, it's an example of under-negation. Somewhere along the way, the negative version, "I could not care less," developed a variation without the not. I covered this one in a 2009 Word Routes column, observing that could care less came on the scene in 1955, a mere eleven years after couldn't care less was first documented. Larry Horn, the negation expert, argues that a similar inversion has happened with what linguists call "squatitives": informal expressions like "He doesn't know diddly-squat" or "I couldn't give a damn." We frequently change those from negative to positive ("He knows diddly-squat" or "I could give a damn"), but for some reason those don't raise the ire of the anti-could care less brigade.

Why do we so often indulge in this kind of semantic flip-flopping? In some cases, an inversion can happen without us even being aware of it. If a friend tells you that she just got back from a vacation and her bags are still unpacked, what is your mental image of her bags? You will likely understand her to mean that her bags are still packed, and she hasn't had time to unpack them (rendering them un-unpacked). Over on Language Log, where I also contribute, we've found many examples of similar inversions, such as presents that are "still unwrapped" (i.e., not yet unwrapped) or bottles of wine that are "still uncorked" (i.e., not yet corked). These tend to fly under our linguistic radar, unless somebody points them out to us. I'm afraid we're flipping our meanings much more often than we realize, and it's only certain high-profile offenders that draw our attention. Yet somehow the machinery of language chugs on, oblivious to the contradictions.

You can catch my CBC interview about literally here.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday August 19th 2011, 1:23 AM
Comment by: Lynne S.
FLIP-FLOPPING: TOO MANY POLITICIANS RUIN LANGUAGE.
YOU'RE WELCOME.
Friday August 19th 2011, 2:18 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>unboundless simply meant boundless, for instance

Is that were "inflammable" came from in its sense of "flammable"?
Friday August 19th 2011, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Language is messy! Language is nutty! It has as many sworls and curlicues and tangles as an overgrown flower bed. I'm a "couldn't care less" guy myself, and if I used "irregardless" my mother would come back from the beyond and hit me on the head.

We all use expressions which are understood by everybody but we don't know why they mean what they mean. "Nevertheless" for instance: we all know what it means, but why do those three conjoined words mean what we know them to mean? I have no idea.

Tone of voice is a huge aspect of word meaning that is nearly impossible to pin down. If we hear "literally" used when the speaker and we know the word is not being used literally, we understand that the apparent misuse is a form of emphasis, exaggeration to make a point. That's one tiny example of how we all are listening for the meaning coming through words, even when the meaning is at odds with the literal meaning of the words.
Friday August 19th 2011, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mike: Inflammable (from Latin inflammare "to set on fire, inflame") is a slightly different case, because the in- there doesn't actually indicate a negative. Instead it's a prefix signifying motion in/on/towards something else, though in some cases it's simply an intensifier. But because the in- prefix can be misconstrued as a negative, the word flammable, which hadn't been used much in English, got revived in the mid-20th century to avoid ambiguity. So materials got marked flammable and non-flammable rather than the more confusing inflammable and non-inflammable. Once again, language is messy... although in this case, people have sought to tidy up the messiness.
Friday August 19th 2011, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
engulf in flames.
Maybe safer to have kept a solid hold on inflammable.
If a manufacturer writes inflammable on a pair of 100% cotton baby pajamas, mom might think that they are, like the polyester ones, not flammable.
Friday August 19th 2011, 11:16 PM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
Has anyone here ever wondered, as I have, how the heck "head over heels" evolved to mean wantonly, exuberantly, or discombobulatedly, such as in, "He is head over heels in love"? Is not head over heels the normal state of affairs?
Saturday August 20th 2011, 11:07 AM
Comment by: george k. R. (Rio Verde, AZ)
I too am concerned about the "head over heals" remark?
Saturday August 20th 2011, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Re head over heels: As Dave Wilton explains on Wordorigins.org, the original idiom (dating back to the 14th century) was heels over head. Then in the late 18th century people began inverting the phrase -- "why, we don't know," says Wilton. I like to think that it happened by imagining a somersaulting motion as "heels over head over heels over head over heels..." so that head over heels could be thought of as part of that tumbling process.
Saturday August 20th 2011, 5:11 PM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Language may at times be messy but we shouldn't let it reach a state in which "anything goes".
Saturday August 20th 2011, 6:37 PM
Comment by: mac
For the most part, intelligent folk, some of whom are educated, speak directly with the least possible adornment so as not to confuse the message while folk who are undereducated (in so many ways) engage in embellishment in hopes of boosting their stock hence, misused words and contronyms (thanx for that).
As for, "I could care less" it seems to me that began as the truncated half of "I could care less if I cared at all".
How about "having your cake and eating it"? when I was a kid that made perfect sense to me. It seems the message ought be, "eating your cake and having it" . . .
Sunday August 21st 2011, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mac: For the history of have your cake and eat it too, see my On Language reader response from February.
Sunday August 21st 2011, 12:12 PM
Comment by: mac
my dear Mister Zimmer,
it just never ends, does it . . . you way po tat oh, i say yams.

those interested in language seem determined to disagree. take, for example the end of the above mentioned piece from february which you end by suggesting i might cause the eyebrows of my friends to crinkle. if one is to equate crinkle with wrinkle, i'm left wondering how to crinkle said "fur".
this buffeting the beach ball of language about is, or should be, good fun and, in the end the question is, do we understand one another.
cheers
mac
Sunday August 21st 2011, 6:16 PM
Comment by: Peter J. (San Diego, CA)
Regarding one not being able to "have their cake and eat it, too," am one of those old cranks who believe this has been turned around from it's initial (logical) sense. I am perfectly capable of having my cake in its full and calorie-filled splendor, after which I can give in to my wanton but feckless desire and eat the cake, thus being able to do both.

But when the order is reversed (for whatever reasons time and usage may offer), it is quite impossible for me to eat my cake and have it (in its original, uneaten form), too.

Ergo, is it not likely the original saying must have been "One cannot eat one's cake and (still) have it, too," especially in the sense of, for instance, one cannot spend one's money and (still) have it, too. On the other hand, I can easily understand how the contronym -- "One cannot have one's cake and eat it, too" -- falls more easily on the ear.

What does anyone else think?
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 2:12 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
How about "carrot and stick?" It seems commonly used these days to mean (metaphorically) a method of prompting action using reward (carrot) and punishment (stick). But isn't its original sense a method of prompting continued action by seeming to offer a reward (the carrot) which, via a subterfuge (the stick), is never actually obtainable no matter how much the desired action is accomplished? That's a much more sophisticated concept, as illustrated by the donkey being coaxed to move forward by a carrot dangling in front of its nose, from a stick being held by its rider. As the donkey moves, the carrot remains the same distance away, promting the donkey to continue moving forward, never actually obtaining its reward. I hate hearing the "dumbed down" version of this metaphor that is in use today.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 2:40 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Wood: The history of such metaphorical idioms is often quite complex. Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe took a long look at the carrot/stick metaphor and concluded, "Instead of a true version and a mistaken one, then, we seem to have two separate phrases, with different meanings and purposes, both embedded in the earliest mentions of carrots and sticks." Read her column here.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 5:36 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
Thanks Ben! Sounds like a good article but unfortunately the page you linked to contains only the headline. I'll see what else I can dig up.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 6:06 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Wood: Boston.com can be a little wonky, but the page should load eventually! You can also check out Michael Quinion's discussion on World Wide Words.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

A modest defense of the often criticized word "literally."
How "could care less" has taken over from "couldn't care less."
We investigate "sanction," a contronym or Janus-faced word.