GRUMPY GRAMMARIAN JUNE 27, 2013
Say what you will about Joe Biden’s peculiarly white teeth and his gaffe-ish tendencies, but it’s time to leave him—and the rest of the Anglophone world—alone for the “misuse” of the word literally. Sure, he uses it too much: ten times in his convention speech last year, such that people who made a drinking game out of it must have had their regrets the next morning. And the literally-laden “Saturday Night Live” parodies have been great. But in real life, there are simply no logical grounds for the idea that Biden is using the word incorrectly.
We’re taught that the “right” meaning is “word-for-word”: He didn’t mean it literally. We are to pull our hair out when people use literally to convey emphasis, as in, They got literally no help. Then we are to go absolutely apoplectic at literally used to intensify things that are figurative, as in Biden’s, “The American people literally stood on the brink of a new Depression.” How can you stand on something that doesn’t exist in the first place? the grammar snobs bleat.
Complaints about literally long predate Biden, of course. An early rendition came from the satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce, who declared in 1909 that “to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” But “wrong” uses of literally go back to Dryden, Austen, and Thackeray.
“Misuse” that has been going on that long would seem to suggest that literally’s meaning has, well, changed. Actually’s did: It first meant “referring to action.” And who hears you say, Surely he’ll get here, and pictures someone arriving with a glow of conviction? Very first meant “true.” Yet imagine someone saying that “very red” is wrong because it requires that something being just plain red must be somehow untrue.
Seeking ways of spicing up meaning is part of any language’s timeline, and literally follows the noble tradition that actually, surely, and very have. No one would want to speak a language where we couldn’t shine a light on a point or lend things a bit of color—and the words we do this with often come from what started as other ones. After all, we can’t just make them up out of thin air. Do we despise calling things “cool” because the word started out meaning “cold”? It’s just that, for no apparent reason, literally has been singled out as a word somehow barred from changing like other words. We speak Modern English instead of the language of the The Canterbury Tales because of these shifts over time. Is anyone wishing otherwise?
John McWhorter is a professor of linguistics, American Studies and Western Civilization at Columbia University; his latest book is What Language Is.