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"literally" (English)

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"literally" (English)

Postby tanuki » Tue 05.01.2007 10:14 pm

Hi there, people!

I don't know if I should include this in the "English pet peeves" thread because I'm not sure if it's actually wrong.

The way I understand "literally" [well, actually its equivalent in Spanish: literalmente], is "in its denotative meaning". In other words, you're not using the word figuratively.

However, I've read many times things like:

He teased her so much that she literally blew up and slapped him in the face.

or something like that. To me it sounds like she actually went "KABOOM!".

This is something I've only seen in English until now (albeit only in forums and such), so I don't know if it can be used that way in English [I'm positive it can't be used that way in Spanish].

Can you please tell me if this is another one of those "it's wrong, but everyone says it that way so most people don't care" kind of things, which is what I fear?

Thanks.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Gundaetiapo » Tue 05.01.2007 10:18 pm

Can you please tell me if this is another one of those "it's wrong, but everyone says it that way so most people don't care" kind of things, which is what I fear?


The speaker is trying to place emphasis and sounds illiterate instead.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Tue 05.01.2007 10:23 pm

This is yet another one of those "NOOO LANGUAGE CAN'T CHANGE" things -- "literally" has been used in the meaning you describe for nearly a century now. It's standard usage in all but the most formal and careful writing; the prescriptivists complain, but time marches on and ignores them.

So it "can" be used; everyone will understand what you mean. Some people don't like this usage of the word, though.

EDIT:
Despite the dictionary's claim that this use of "literally" only goes back a century, a search of mastertexts turned up older results than that:
19th century writing by Andrew Lang:
"As soon as the sun fell below the hills, it was literally alive with large trout rising."

Mark Twain (1876):
"And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth."

Arthur Conan Doyle:
"Even the triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression."

Sir Walter Scott (1828):
"The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried."

Thomas Hardy(early 20th):
"It was literally teeming, stratified, with the shades of human groups, who had met there for tragedy, comedy, farce; real enactments of the intensest kind."

Henry James(early 20th):
"She has been speculating on her impunity, on the idea that her danger would hold off: she has literally been running a race with it."

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (19th cent.):
"Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye."

Jack London:
"...and they literally swamp the working classes in a vast sea of tracts and pamphlets."

With this sort of precedent, it seems hard to completely dismiss it.
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Tue 05.01.2007 10:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby AJBryant » Tue 05.01.2007 10:35 pm

The trouble is, if we *allow* the ignorant people to usurp the proper meaning of the word, we'll *lose* that concept, and we will no longer be able to say what we mean.

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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Tue 05.01.2007 10:37 pm

So Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Sir Walter Scott, Jack London, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others who have used the word are ignorant? Who gets to decide what the "proper" meaning of a word is?

(Browsing through mastertexts more, I can also add Robert Louis Stevenson. Henry James in particular seems to use this a lot, but there are multiple uses from all of these authors.)
Last edited by Yudan Taiteki on Tue 05.01.2007 10:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Teh_Freak » Tue 05.01.2007 11:10 pm

The way you'll usually hear "literally" used in speech is for emphasis, usually in telling bad news or a joke, but it is still used for generally emphasizing something.

For example (very casual/slang here):
Guy A: Dude, he stole your bike!
Guy B: What?!
Guy A: Yeah man, he literally got on and peeled out real fast!

Here its being used to emphasize the fact that someone got on the bike and drove off on it. The examples Yudan posted are excellent examples of how the word is used.

Also, in your example sentence, "blew up" is used to mean things generally associated with anger. In this case, I get the impression of "enraged".
Last edited by Teh_Freak on Tue 05.01.2007 11:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Gundaetiapo » Tue 05.01.2007 11:21 pm

It's akin to using all caps in writing. It's technically incorrect and excessive in its emphasis. Keep "literal" literal, yes?
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby lalaith » Wed 05.02.2007 12:17 am

Yudan Taiteki wrote:
This is yet another one of those "NOOO LANGUAGE CAN'T CHANGE" things -- "literally" has been used in the meaning you describe for nearly a century now. It's standard usage in all but the most formal and careful writing; the prescriptivists complain, but time marches on and ignores them.

So it "can" be used; everyone will understand what you mean. Some people don't like this usage of the word, though.

With this sort of precedent, it seems hard to completely dismiss it.


How can I possibly disagree? Twain, Sir Arthur, Bronte, London -- I grew up on them; I could tell you which books are being quoted. They're some of my all time favorite authors.

And I see you added Stevenson, yet another childhood favorite.

I come down on the side that all of the above were acceptable usages of the word "literally."
Last edited by lalaith on Wed 05.02.2007 12:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby zengargoyle » Wed 05.02.2007 12:49 am

AJBryant wrote:
The trouble is, if we *allow* the ignorant people to usurp the proper meaning of the word, we'll *lose* that concept, and we will no longer be able to say what we mean.


have no fear, language is evolutionary. changes in meaning don't necessarily equate to loss of ability to communicate precisely. changes that result in loss of ability to communicate are selected against. changes that allow either better communication, or at least the same level of communication are selected for. since it's inception some X of thousands (or tens of thousands) of years ago, language has never been static, always changing, and never yet has the ability to communicate been lost.

otherwise, it's called "getting old" :) which is pretty much equivalent to dropping off of the evolutionary curve by not being able to change. i can't understand them, you can't understand them, but they can understand each other perfectly.

all that's missing is good education (for them) about how to understand the speech from the past (us). :)
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby SirFirestorm » Wed 05.02.2007 8:00 am

I havnt heard the word used like that... it is used as an emphasis using an outrageous contrast of events that normally would be unbelievable.

In my understanding and how I use it, generally an exagerated or outrageous claim is made to provide emphasis, but you wouldnt believe it unless you saw it and so "literally" denotes something like "It really happened in real life".

Example borrowing from yudan taiteki:
Mark Twain (1876):
"And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth."


here, literally rolling in wealth would mean rolling in actual money, because "rolling in wealth" generally would be seen as something of a metaphor, and adding "literally" to that would make it a factual or literal statement.

Arthur Conan Doyle:
"Even the triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression."


the exagerated statement "ankle-deep in telegrams" would be seen as quite a lot of telegrams and someone would assume that to get that amount of telegrams to fill up the entire room would be fictional, but adding literally to that, makes the unlikely event a fact.

In regard to tanuki's original example:
He teased her so much that she literally blew up and slapped him in the face.


It can be misconstrued as going kaboom, but people don't do that in real life so literally, it could be that her face got really bloated and red due to her anger, or it could be she let out a scream like an explosion.

Teh_Freak provided a bad example, stealing a bike and then saying "he literally got on" is not at all outrageous, one would assume to ride a bike you would have to get on to ride it. It provides no emphasis or contrast.
If it was something like "he literally stole it while riding on the top of a car", you have a crazy image of the situation but it is affirmed as something that actually happened.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby Yudan Taiteki » Wed 05.02.2007 8:41 am

To add to what's been said, I think this disputed use of "literally" does not belong in the formal register or should not be used at times when accuracy is very important (i.e. a newspaper), but that doesn't mean the usage is totally wrong either.

It's usually used with metaphors that cannot be taken literally, so that the emphatic usage of the word is clear. i.e. it's pretty much impossible that someone's room could be ankle-deep in telegrams, unless they were a huge pack rat or didn't ever clean things up. It's obvious that the meaning there is to emphasize the metaphor rather than to make the metaphor literal.

I think people generally observe this distinction in their speech. I'm not sure I've ever heard someone say something like "There were literally three people in my class today" and they actually mean there were 1 or 2. This disputed use of literally is only used in cases like "He was literally saturated with jazz music from his birth".

This usage of the word has at least a 180 year history, has been used by numerous respectable writers of English literature, is used frequently in common speech, and is understood by everyone. It just seems like there's some point at which you have to accept something as part of the language.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby lalaith » Wed 05.02.2007 8:44 am

SirFirestorm wrote:
Example borrowing from yudan taiteki:
Mark Twain (1876):
"And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth."


here, literally rolling in wealth would mean rolling in actual money, because "rolling in wealth" generally would be seen as something of a metaphor, and adding "literally" to that would make it a factual or literal statement.


If I'm understanding what you're saying, then, I'm afraid you're not correct in your interpretation.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn found $12,000 and they never actually rolled in it. The "Tom was literally rolling in wealth" just means that the money they found was a lot of money.

Arthur Conan Doyle:
"Even the triumphant issue of his labours could not save him from reaction after so terrible an exertion, and at a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression."


the exagerated statement "ankle-deep in telegrams" would be seen as quite a lot of telegrams and someone would assume that to get that amount of telegrams to fill up the entire room would be fictional, but adding literally to that, makes the unlikely event a fact.


Again, no. The Baker Street apartment of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson was not, in fact, "ankle-deep in telegrams". It's just a way of saying that there were a whole lot of them.

I know it's confusing and that what you said:
I havnt heard the word used like that... it is used as an emphasis using an outrageous contrast of events that normally would be unbelievable.

In my understanding and how I use it, generally an exagerated or outrageous claim is made to provide emphasis, but you wouldnt believe it unless you saw it and so "literally" denotes something like "It really happened in real life".

would seem logical, but really when "literally" is used in this fashion with the examples you quoted it just indicates -- in hyperbole -- the extent.

For the other examples that Yudan gave that I've actually read:
Henry James(early 20th):
"She has been speculating on her impunity, on the idea that her danger would hold off: she has literally been running a race with it."

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (19th cent.):
"Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye."

Jack London:
"...and they literally swamp the working classes in a vast sea of tracts and pamphlets."


I think the James one was from "Portrait of a Lady", I've only read it once. Even if it's not, I can tell you the woman was not hiking up her skirts running a footrace.

Jane Eyre was the apple of Mr. Rochester's eye figuratively because he loved her more than anything on earth. But Bronte uses the term "literally" here because at that time Mr. Rochester was blind and Jane was having to lead him around.

And literally swamping the working classes in a vast sea of tracts and pamphlets just meant they got a lot of them. I could say the same about the amount of junk mail that ends up in my mail box.

I know for a non-English speaker it's confusing, but "literally" doesn't always mean "literally". It only means "literally" if what follows next is something reasonable.

I got so mad I literally started throwing things. -- That's literal.
I got so mad I literally blew the roof off. -- That's not literal.
Last edited by lalaith on Wed 05.02.2007 8:48 am, edited 1 time in total.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby AJBryant » Wed 05.02.2007 1:27 pm

What would you take to be the meaning if you saw the sentence, "The regiment was literally decimated"?
:p

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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby SirFirestorm » Wed 05.02.2007 1:50 pm

hmmm, perhaps I am mistaken then. Although I am a native english speaker I have only heard it in that context although i could have just been misinterpreting it. Whats confusing about that is that something like

"...when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams I found him a prey to the blackest depression."

basically could be said to be ankle-deep with telegrams. Theres not much difference inserting the word literally in there, not in terms of emphasis anyways.
I'm wondering how it happened that a word with very different meanings turns into an adverb used as an adjective which has no relation to the context of the sentence, but has the job of providing emphasis? :boggle:

again, Tony's sentence: "The regiment was literally decimated" would be interpreted as "The regiment was decimated", why is "literally" even in that sentence if it doesnt do anything? Yea im confused.
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RE: "literally" (English)

Postby richvh » Wed 05.02.2007 1:55 pm

AJBryant wrote:
What would you take to be the meaning if you saw the sentence, "The regiment was literally decimated"?
:p

Tony


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