Sunday, March 13, 2022

Figuratively Insane

There is apparently* a T-shirt reading "Misuse of 'literally'** makes me figuratively*** insane." I understand and practically**** approve.

I could keep expanding this with actually, really (rilly), truly, very (verily), and a few others, but the humor of the footnotes is just about exhausted. I counted and think I could have gotten up to ************* for examples, but point taken, amiright? We aren't actually, really, literally dying of thirst when we are very thirsty. But that turn of phrase is not unusual. We turn something meaning truthfully, actually, literally, into simple intensifiers all the time. And there are nuances.  Actually is what is called a counter-expectational, in that not only does "He actually bought every quart of vanilla ice cream in the store" mean that he truly did that, but that it is the sort of thing one would not have anticipated.

My point is not merely that this has happened to other words in English, but that it always happens to words like this. I have done my time objecting to the figurative use of literally, and I know the frustration of looking at it and thinking "But that's not what the word actually MEANS." Yet it has been going on a long time, and we are now late in the process.  A radio listener complained to CS Lewis in the 40s that he had used "literally" in such a way, and Lewis was appalled and apologised. "You cannot possibly upbraid me in this matter more than I do myself." This is not a battle we can win. We can only fight a rearguard action keeping our preferred meaning in some currency as long as is possible.

The same is true of irregardless, which yes, is redundant and ungainly. Yet because English came to foolishly forbid double negatives because of Robert Lowth (again) in the 18th C, who just thought we should not have those because they felt wrong to him, people have been sneaking them in ever since, as a means of emphasis. I never use irregardless myself - I am part of the resistance seeking to slow such changes.  But all these changes will sound less wrong to a new generation, until we who complain about "literally," or "irregardless" will be the butt of humor. Can you believe that 150 years ago some stuffy people objected to them? Lowth insisted that "chicken" was the plural of "chick," for example. I mentioned this in some detail recently. 

I don't mind being a dinosaur, and admit to a certain conceit about it.   That I avoid certain usages says something about me that I like. Yet I also have the recognition that language always changes, and it is not that young people today are so sloppy and ill-taught, but that forbidden usages become discouraged usages become less-preferred usages become colloquial usages become informal usages become simply usages. The kids are alright.  They are just at a different point on the long line.

Young people should know their audience, though, and whether they are going to get a whoopie pie or not from their choices. Choose what hills you want to die on.

* apparent+ly, meaning "appear, come into sight" from Latin via Old French meaning to come forth, be visible and -ly, related to "lich" and "like," meaning body, corpse and body, form, in Proto-Germanic, possibly very similar in PIE but uncertain. AD&D players and Tolkien fans will recognise "lich" as a type of undead, still similar to humans in form, but essentially***** animated corpses.

** literal+ly meaning "by the letter" +"like," (above). By the natural meaning, not mystical or allegorical. 

*** figurative+ly, from Latin figurare, to form or shape via Late Latin and Old French, which is in turn from PIE *dheigh to form or shape, and the root of surprising words such as dairy, dough, effigy, lady, + ly (again, as above. This will be the last time I mention that for -ly,-like)

****practic+al+ly meaning method, use, from applied, fit for use, ultimately from PIE "per(h) accomplish, go through plus -al of, like, plus -ly. Later came to mean "as good as," and then "almost."

****essentia(l) + -ly being, essence, ultimately from PIE "es-" to be.


JMSmith said...

Usage certainly changes and tomorrow's English will certainly be more like that of my children than my grandfather, but this fact does not mean that youth owns the language of today. The same can be said about popular morality. The fact of change becomes the normative doctrine that age should defer to youth, and more especially to those who lead youth by the nose. I was mildly upbraided at a dinner party yesterday evening for using the word raffish, because it is a "nineteenth-century word." I readily admit that raffish may be moribund, but the fact that my trendy interlocutor knew its meaning shows it is still available for use right now. I think we oldsters have a duty to retard change and make youth earn its innovations.

Zachriel said...

JMSmith: I think we oldsters have a duty to retard change and make youth earn its innovations.


james said...

I've seen footnotes to footnotes--in a book by Victor Borge, of course.

Donna B. said...

"Actually" is one that annoys me on Facebook*. It shows up on sleazy click-bait recipe accounts in this form: "Does anyone here actually eat potatoes?" These show up on my timeline because I often search recipes online.

*Yes, I know... Facebook, ugh. I love my private groups there.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ James - the novel Infinite Jest has copious lengthy footnotes, some of which have footnotes of their own. It is a cult classic, I hear.