18 September 2009

Literally in a Figurative Sense

Via Unspeak again, I came across this concerned citizen complaining about "literally". This is a bone I've had to pick with the world at large for a while, and I pick on Jeff Strabone because he seems to have summed up most of the arguments and a couple of the failings around the word.

Firstly, he gives a good example of, what is in my opinion, the only merit of prescriptivism: pragmatism, saying that
If we lose the literal meaning of 'literal', we would be depriving our language of one of the two words, the other being 'figurative', that most help us understand how language does and does not work.
And he's basically right. The opposition between 'literally' and 'figuratively' is a highly useful one. And in 'literally' acquiring a figurative sense, it basically falls prey to the exact kind of semantic shift that makes it necessary. But we're not dealing with a binary here. People can use metaphors in several senses, and just two words doesn't cut it.

I'll give you a couple of examples: 'to drink someone under the table' has, ostensibly, two meanings - the metaphorical sense of outdrinking someone, and the literal sense of outdrinking them to the point that they slump under the table. But the metaphorical meaning is itself ambiguous: did you carry on drinking after your opponent had thrown in the towel, or did you just get more in before closing time? 'To laugh your head off' means 'to laugh a lot' in the figurative sense, in the literal sense, nothing. But, being naturally prone to exaggeration, people might say they laughed their heads off for levels of hilarity well below the average for that idiom, in the same way someone sitting with a face like a slapped arse might type 'rofl'.

How to distinguish between the two? 'Figurative' announces metaphor, hyperbole or both. 'Literal', in its old sense, declares no hyperbole, no metaphor. What do we say when there is metaphor, but no hyperbole? "I was literally laughing my head off" could not possibly mean decapitation by hilarity, it could only mean "I was laughing hard enough to merit this colourful figure of speech". But what about drinking under the table? Here we have three possibilities: outdrinking, outdrinking with a clear victory and outdrinking with the opponent physically slumped under the table. One is clearly literal, one is clearly figurative, but what about the one in the middle? Well, have you ever met anyone, anywhere, ever, who would say "I literally drank him under the table" and leave it at that? When you hear where the losing inebriate ended up, and believe me, you will, then you know what kind of 'literal' you are dealing with. Nine times out of ten, the context and the intelligence of the listener is enough to clear up most ambiguities.

So let's take Jeff's example:
Now, normally this redtape is a nuisance. We work through it. It is inconvenient. It is a nuisance. But we just sort of move through the redtape of Government. But in this case, it is literally a noose that is around the necks of people, of business owners, large and small, family members—strangling their efforts to recover their communities that were devastated.
Jeff adds
Is it time for Northern troops to occupy Louisiana again as they did during the Reconstruction? Is someone literally lynching people down South with nooses made of literal red tape? Senator Landrieu seems to think so.
No, because that would be ludicrous. Would anyone seriously interpret it that way, even for a second? What Senator Landrieu seems to be getting at is this: "Many politicians, possibly myself included, would call this bureaucracy a 'noose' when it is really just a nuisance. This is not the case here. Though not actually a noose in the physical sense, it is serious enough to merit the comparison".

From the supposed degeneration of 'literally', we've actually gained a handy tool against the degeneration of other words and idioms. Jeff seems to think 'literally' has swapped places with 'figuratively', but that's clearly not the case. 'Literally' has found a niche in the clarification of figurative speech. However, because this inevitably ends up strengthening the idiom, prescriptivists and pedants often assume it means nothing more nuanced than 'really'.

Jeff adds:
One of my standard parlor tricks (no, not a literal parlor) in the classroom is to de-familiarize everyday figures...My favourite is 'planet', thought today to mean a big chunk of matter that orbits a star. The Greek word for those bright lights was 'planetos', literally 'wanderer'. They called them wanderers or wandering stars because they moved idiosyncratically against the backdrop of the celestial sphere of all the other fixed stars that rotated as one. Thus, when we call a big chunk of orbitting matter a planet, we are using a dead metaphor, for the word literally meant 'wanderer'.
This is a rather charming etymological fact and a clear illustration of just how necessary this distinction is. But I can't imagine how general ambiguity in the word 'literally' would introduce ambiguity to this specific context. The rest of this QI-nugget makes it clear what information should be expected - a meaning of the word which is literal in the old sense. Even with the false assumption that the new sense of 'literally' is purely emphatic, that makes no sense in this context. In the same way, there is no ambiguity if I ask whether the Greeks literally believed the planets to be wandering. Emphatic belief makes no sense here.

Aside from that, language is often enriched by ambiguity, and can easily survive it. Even a word like 'literally' can. Not convinced? What does 'planet' mean literally in English? Is it a big, round space-rock, which is not true to its Greek origins, or is it a wanderer, in a sense which is never used in English? Does 'month' literally mean 'moon'? Is a porcupine "literally" a spiny pig? Discuss. 'Literally' seems to have a third sense involving etymological regression which nobody's ever had a problem with. Go back to "He said he was literally laughing his head off." I'm sure you'd agree that's literally impossible. But does that mean it's utterly impossible? Or does it mean it is impossible to do literally? And other, similar words and phrases have coped with the same ambiguity. "I'm not exaggerating, I laughed my head off" works much the same as with 'literally'. 'Actually' and 'really' can both mean both 'literally' and 'emphatically', as long as there's context and intonation to help distinguish.

But even if you don't agree, it's not really any of your business how other people use words, and besides, it's happened now. Complaining about it somehow seems as much use as shouting at the waitress to take the milk out of your tea. So why not learn to love milky tea and start using the figurative sense of 'literally' to your advantage? If there's one thing I love about language, it's that it shows how intelligent, resourceful and witty people can be when left to their own devices. The English language is a testament in itself to how naturally human communication adapts to any kind of change, so I'm sure we'll muddle our way through. Look up. When I wanted to clarify 'literally' I found myself using 'physical' twice. I like to think it worked. Or we could try playing games with 'quite literally'. Either way, I for one am both curious and optimistic about how this will pan out.

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