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Is it literally the end of the world to use ‘literally’ figuratively? English Language

Lewis Turner explores the dilemma of shifting word senses and whether the original meaning is the ‘true’ meaning.

I’m sure we’ve all heard someone exclaim something along of the lines of “I literally could not keep my eyes open during that lecture”. However, we all know that they physically

could and, in reality, they were just a bit bored. This utterance would make some people figuratively want to explode. This is an issue of semantics as the problem lies in a misunderstanding of word meaning. Any dictionary would tell you that the adverb ‘literally’ refers to ‘a truthful representation of an event’. However, as previously exemplified, it is now commonly used for emphasis or exaggeration. The perceived misuse of ‘literally’ has become one of semantics’ largest controversies; just see Jamie Redknapp’s ‘Foot In Mouth Award’ win for his very ‘nonliteral’ use of the word (Plain English, 2010) – e.g. “These balls now – they literally explode off your feet.” At the heart of this issue is the debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Prescriptivists try to uphold rules that preserve and impose a ‘correct’ form of a language whereas descriptivists attempt to describe how people actually use language and are welcoming of change and adaptation (Curzan, 2014, p. 14). Hitchings (2011) summarises this as “one says what ought to happen, and the other says what does happen” (p. 23). People’s fears over their own language usage has helped prescriptivism become a potentially large market for authors. So much so that books that purport to teach ‘proper English’, such as Gywnne’s Grammar (2013) and Heffer’s Strictly English (2010), can often be found amongst the bestseller lists. Semantics is usually a key issue in prescriptivism because, as Heffer argues, inaccurate usage of a word “can leave […interlocutors] understanding something quite different” from what we intended (2010 p. 136). He describes these types of mistakes as “vulgarities” (p. 183). This links to a belief held by many prescriptivists: that there was a ‘golden age’ for the English language where everyone used English ‘correctly’. An example that Heffer says shows the drop in modern standards is the misuse of the word ‘dilemma’. He argues that as it originates from the Greek term for ‘two propositions”, it therefore cannot be used to refer to a choice between three-or-more possibilities (p. 143).

On the other hand, a descriptivist would argue that such an assertion is completely pedantic as very few people actually know the etymology (the linguistic origin) of words. I think it’s pretty likely that none of us would bat an eyelid if someone told us that they were facing a ‘dilemma’ over what to buy their friend for Christmas, or where they wanted

to go on holiday, or anything else with more than two possible solutions. As Trudgill (1998) argues, comprehension is hardly ever affected by semantic change as people are either able to use contextual clues to work out what is meant or never knew the original meaning in the first place (p. 5). Instead of tracing back to original roots, most people’s understanding of lexical items comes from how they hear other speakers use them in real life. This is supported by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) who notes that due to popular usage, dilemmas can now refer to choices with “several” options (OED online, 2019) and who in 2011, added the ‘improper’ emphatic meaning of ‘literally’ to their dictionary (Gill, 2013). Regarding the so-called ‘golden age’, descriptivists would point out that more people than ever are able to read and write and the evidence used to support the golden age belief is usually anecdotal with no qualitative evidence (Milroy, 1998. p. 61).

Personally, I’m not sure if I could call myself purely a descriptivist or prescriptivist. I think words do need rules that dictate some agreed meaning or effective communication would be impossible. However, I certainly think that meanings are not set in stone and should be allowed to adapt with the times, otherwise I would have to argue that ‘nice’ could still only refer to its original meaning of ‘foolish’ (Trudgill, 1998, p. 2).

So, when Jamie Redknapp describes a footballer as being “literally a greyhound” this Super Sunday should we just ignore it because we all understand he is using it for emphasis? Or does this make him look too ‘nice’ (in the original sense)? All I know is that it’s an issue about which I’m literally going to sit on the fence!

LEWIS TURNER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


NB: this blog was originally published on the Language Debates website on 14 May 2019

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