Literally

To me, the definitive essay on definitions was written by David Foster Wallace. In "Authority and American Usage" (which originally appeared in Harper's Magazine but is now collected in Consider the Lobster), Wallace dug into what he called "the seamy underbelly of US lexicography" in order to review a book by Bryan Garner called A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. That book, now published as Garner's Modern American Usage, inspired Wallace to consider the dilemma of the dictionary.

The dilemma's horns are known as Prescriptivism and Descriptivism, and they are long and pointy indeed, offering two very different views of what a dictionary is. The quick and dirty version of that difference is that Prescriptivists want dictionaries to show how the language should be, while Descriptivists want dictionaries to show how the language is.

A dictionary that establishes hard, fixed, and clear definitions is the dream of the Prescriptivists, who are sick of hearing people use unique to mean unusual rather than one of a kind, and who find I could care less a tooth-grinding error in logic and rhetoric. In their view, the dictionary is the place where the rules of meaning are captured and displayed, allowing a reader to look up an unclear or unknown word and have the pure truth shine upon him. The chaotic mishmash of non-standard words, phrases, and usages can be controlled only through the cold, antiseptic scalpel of the dictionary, separating English from non-English, accuracy from error, use from misuse. The dictionary, to the Prescriptivist, is an autocrat. No matter how frequent or widespread a word's misuse may be, say the P-folk, it remains a misuse unless the dictionary's authority is behind it.

The D-folk, however, see this whole worldview as ludicrous, not to mention anti-democratic. A Descriptivist will point out that a dictionary is an after-the-fact creation, an attempt to impose restrictions on something that already exists; English is centuries older than any English dictionary. Moreover, there are dozens of different English dictionaries (88 of which have their own Wikipedia pages) written by scores of people and published in nearly as many places around the world. Which one should be the ultimate arbiter of what a word means or how it is properly used? And what's to be done about the variations of English? Who's to say whether the correct English spelling is the British gaol or the American jail? For a Descriptivist, no book has the authority to invalidate the speech of hundreds of millions of users. No, the best a dictionary can do is to record the ways in which those users interact with their language. There are no misuses of words--only varying uses. The dictionary's job, in the Descriptivist's ideal, is to capture, as fully and completely as possible, the many and varied ideas of the English-speaking world. In other words, Power to the People.

And on which of these points do I perch uncomfortably? You'll probably be unsurprised to hear that I fit between them. Why am I there? The metaphor I sometimes use is that of the human body. Prescriptivism alone is too rigid; it is inert, calcified, motionless. On the other hand, Descriptivism alone has no structure; it is unmanageable, gelatinous, shapeless. One is a skeleton; one is a jellyfish; both are pretty useless. Unless a language has both a rigid structure to hold up the floppy parts and a fluid musculature to move around the stiff parts, it's not going to be able to dance.

That said, some may be shocked to find a trained teacher of English pitching his tent closer to the Descriptivist camp. Why? Well, at a fundamental level, it must be conceded that languages exist independent of dictionaries; the idea that the latter can have any kind of universal authority is simply laughable, despite the best efforts of lexicographers and their publishers. Languages exist even among the illiterate, or those too poor to own a dictionary, so on a practical level, there is no way for a speaker of English to have a complete and perfect knowledge of the contents of any dictionary, leaving the determination of how to use many words entirely up to the speaker.

And honestly, that's healthy; languages must change as the world in which their speakers live changes. New concepts, new technologies, and new terms of art are being created all the time, and a language that cannot deal with those creations will be dead before long. When computers became widespread, for example, we needed a convenient term meaning "to gain access to," and the verb "to access" was born. Nor is this any kind of johnny-come-lately development; English had no words for New World foods, creatures, or cultural practices until the 16th century, but we've now had 500 years to get used to eating potatoes, photographing bison, and smoking. Waiting for dictionaries to provide official approval before using such terms would be unwieldy at best, and the truth is that dictionaries are reactionary anyway; no matter how widespread the need might be, a lexicographer would be disinclined to redefine the verb "to smoke" as "to inhale the fumes of burning tobacco" unless there were already quite a few English speakers using it that way.

With all that said, however, I find myself mourning a recent development in lexicography, one noted in this widely-read Guardian piece by Martha Gill: a number of dictionary makers, most notably Merriam-Webster, have added a definition for the word literally, and the new definition, paradoxically, is "not literally."

The new definition, indicated by Google here, is "Used to acknowledge that something is not literally (emphasis mine--PC) true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling."

The tongue-in-cheek headline of Gill's article ("Have we literally broken the English language?") is an indicator of the exaggerated trauma this development has caused for many grammarians. The Week is even sniffier, announcing its own article as "How the Wrong Definition of 'Literally' Snuck into the Dictionary." (Note: if you're going to get pissy about people using "wrong" English, you should be aware that "snuck" rubs an awful lot of people the wrong way as the past tense form of "sneak." In fact, my MSWord spellchecker doesn't recognize "snuck" as a word. So nyaah.) Why the fuss? Because the word literally means, y'know, "in a literal fashion." Something is literally true when it is true in a word-for-word, honest-to-gosh, no-kidding, straight-up actual sense. If something is figuratively true, or true in a manner of speaking, or metaphorically true, or true in some variety of bullshit Obi-Wan way, it's not literally true. In fact, it's the opposite of literally true. And that's a problem.

Imagine that I'm standing in a flooded basement and talking to my plumber on the phone.

If there are merely a few pools of water that don't even come over the tops of my shoes, it is not accurate for me to say, "The water is knee-deep in here!. Can you send someone now?" At the very least, I would be exaggerating, or at worst, deliberately lying. If I were to do so, I might well cause the plumber to drop another emergency to come deal with the relatively minor problem in my basement,

If several inches of water cover the floor, I might say, "The water is knee-deep in here!" This an exaggeration, sure, but the gist of the statement is in line with the reality, and the plumber gets a reasonable sense of the situation he'll face: a floor that is completely flooded and getting worse.

If the water is up to the hem of my shorts, it is completely appropriate for me to say, "The water is knee-deep in here."

In fact, I could even emphasize how accurate I'm being by saying "The water is literally knee-deep in here." That adverb tells the plumber that I'm not exaggerating at all; I'm providing a description that is as close to the actual truth as I can make it, thus giving him a sense of the situation that is as accurate as possible.

But now the problem: if my plumber knows the new definition of literally, then when I call the water "literally knee-deep," he cannot have any idea what I mean. I might be 100% accurate, or I might be exaggerating; heck, I might even have a bone-dry basement. The addition of the word literally to my sentence has provided no information to my plumber at all; in fact, my sentence is now less clear to him than "The water is knee-deep in here" would be.

The word literally now cancels itself out. By definition.

I know, I know, these dictionaries are merely reflecting the changing nature of the language, not causing it. And besides, English isn't mathematical or logical by nature, so it is foolish to expect mathematical or logical order from it. In English, a positive statement can, with the right tone, become a sarcastic negation--yeah, right--and a double negative can get across its meanings perfectly well, and ain't nobody out there who should deny it. The beauty and utility of English is unquestionably enhanced by our adoption of words, usages, and meanings that extend beyond the restrictive boundaries of a dictionary entry, and in general it is wise to recall the words of Derek Jennings, who noted that English accrued over time, like the rings of Saturn, and that every attempt we make to impose order on it at best a bit tardy.

But I can't help recalling Wallace's take on the matter, because what he saw in Bryan Garner's book was nothing short of a master stroke--a cutting of the Gordian knot, or perhaps the slipping of an oversized camel through the needle's eye between Descriptivism and Prescriptivism. As he saw it, Garner was not setting himself up as an authority figure, passing down judgment on the reader's use of language, nor as a nonjudgmental collector of uncategorized specimens of English. Instead, as Wallace put it:

[T]he author presents himself not as a cop or a judge but as more like a doctor or lawyer. This is an ingenious tactic... Garner, in other words, casts himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism. After all, do we call a doctor or lawyer "elitist" when he presumes to tell us what we should eat or how we should do our taxes?

In other words, according to Garner, when it comes to English, the dictionary maker is not the judge; the only judge is the audience. Lexicographers, grammarians, English teachers, and random internet pedants of all stripes can do nothing but offer their opinions about the best ways to use words, and if those opinions are persuasive, people will adopt them into their own writing and speech.

In that regard, the argument over literally has already been settled; clearly there exists a population of English speakers for whom literally works best as a word meaning figuratively or emphatically, rather than in actual fact. Words such as really and truly and honestly have traveled this route already, so I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad that they have a new companion.

At the same time, however, I can't help feeling a little down. Literally was a good word, a useful word, one that provided a nugget of meaning that often helped me express an idea a bit more clearly, or come more rapidly to an understanding. Now I feel as though it's been taken from me. Maybe it was inevitable, but I find it just as hard to be fatalistic about the life of a word as I do the life of a species. Intellectually I know every species becomes extinct in the end, just as every human life reaches its limit at some point, but that doesn't help me feel better. Our world has already lost the Black Rhino, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Dodo; maybe they weren't great losses, and maybe some other creature is already making use of the ecological niche each once inhabited, but they were losses nonetheless. And now I go on into a world that, for all practical purposes, has lost something else.

And I do feel we have lost something. Literally.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 20, 2013 4:02 PM.

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