A Peever's Perspective on "Literally"
We've been keeping tabs on the fuss over the word "literally" over the past couple of weeks, as commentators have expressed indignation that the non-literal definition of the word can be found in both online and print dictionaries now. In a Washington Post opinion piece, copy editor Bill Walsh, a self-identified "enlightened stickler," ruminates on the "literally" debate, which he thinks is overblown despite his own peevishness over misuse of the word.
Walsh critiques the Reddit poster who set off the would-be controversy, as well as the "outraged observers" who followed in his wake, for misrepresenting the role of dictionaries in documenting the use of "literally" in emphatic or hyperbolic fashion. But while he thinks that there's nothing newsworthy about dictionaries including the disparaged meaning, he commiserates with those who dislike hearing "literally" used non-literally:
Still, that Reddit post wasn’t written in a vacuum. The new definition is well established, but so is a strong disdain for it. The usage has become a pop-culture punch line. It’s fodder for comic strips and stand-up comics. Vice President Biden makes headlines with his fondness for it. The usage fills a chapter of my new book, "Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk." However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means "I am not making this up" when you are, in fact, making something up.
Even dispassionate observers draw some lines between what’s technically defensible and what’s preferable. Several of the linguists, lexicographers and other scholarly types who rolled their eyes (perhaps even literally) at what one called this "tempest in a teapot" had previously acknowledged no great love for the secondary meaning. John McIntyre, a longtime Baltimore Sun editor and passionately dispassionate language blogger: "Let the record show that, for my part, I prefer to use literally in its literal sense." Ben Zimmer, a language writer and former dictionary editor: "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."
Some of us cringe more than occasionally. We have a heightened sensitivity to the way words are used. We are the language snobs. The sticklers. The peevers. I found perhaps the one calling where my neurosis could be used constructively. It’s probably not normal to write "obsessive-compulsive" on a job application. But I did that in applying to join my college newspaper.
Some of us got this way because nuns assaulted us with rulers or because our parents corrected us to "may I" every time we said "can I," or "lie down" every time we said "lay down." Neither of those things happened to me — I just had a dad with a knack for spelling and a mom who did and does enjoy pouncing on malapropisms. I was raised, not "reared."
Read the rest of Walsh's opinion piece here, and check out our contributor Mark Peters' review of his new book. For more on "literally," see our roundup of the latest hubbub, and read Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column on "flip-flop usage" cited by Walsh.