Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Pointless Language Rant About Pointless Language Rants

Every so often, columnists seem to feel the need to go on a rant about linguistic pecadilloes: the misuse of "hopefully," "between you and I," etc. So Stephen F. Hayes in the Weekly Standard recently teed of on (what he calls) the misuse of the word literally. He starts by picking on the hapless Naomi Judd, writing,

The singer-actress-philosopher sat down with Larry King recently to promote Naomi's Breakthrough Guide: 20 Choices to Transform Your Life. Not content to mimic the mawkish language of the self-help set, she promised to take the conversation to the "neuroscientist level." Then she declared: "We literally become whatever we think about all day."

Hayes's snarky response: "At some point in the near future I will become a bratwurst."

Hayes doesn't like it that most people often use the word literally "to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense" (Oxford English Dictionary). One wonders why not: the OED traces this use at least as far back as 1863 (though the OED, too, objects to it).

But the meaning that Hayes prefers is itself rather odd. He gives an example of how he'd like us all to use literally:
By the end of the meal I literally had to hold my tongue to keep from saying anything. I got several strange looks. [He was holding his tongue! ha ha!]
Hayes's preferred use of literally indicates "that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense" (OED). But this is an odd use for an adverb: it doesn't modify the verb -- because holding one's tongue has nothing to do with words' senses --; rather, it instructs the reader on how the words had to hold my tongue are to be interpreted. How novel. In fact, how un-literal. It's sort of meta-adverbial. I wonder why Hayes prefers it?

In truth, literally can only be applied, in its oldest and most literal sense, to words or phrases having to do with the understanding of language, e.g. "They interpret literally that which the author intended figuratively."

Aaaand, if we wanted to be really picky about it, we might point out that literally is ultimately derived from the Latin word for "letter" (as in "letter of the alphabet"), so that it should only be applied to written language. And since letters of the alphabet don't have senses, it isn't even reasonable to talk about a literal sense, or about interpreting words literally, right? So let's not be picky.

Hayes's objection to the fact that literally has acquired a new meaning over the last century and a half is about as sensible as me objecting to French because it isn't Latin any more.

So I've had it with columnists' pointless rants about the fact that language changes.

In fact, if I read another one, I'm literally going to throw up.

P.S. BUT – if pointless rants about language change are your thing, NPR has a guy who specializes in them: here's a whole page of his stuff.


D. Hoggard said...

Well, basically, I agree with you.

Which literally points out one of my pet peeves that you might basically want to rant about at a later date.

Anonymous said...

Literarily, I agree with you, basically.

By the way, have you ever tried to hold your tongue? Slippery little devil keeps pulling out of your fingers.

Between you and I, him and me concur. There are other good rants out there.

Joe Guarino said...

How about a linguistic analysis of the word "snarky"? Had never seen it before I started looking at blogs. Am I an outsider who is hopelessly impervious to shop talk; or, alternatively, a mere cultural illiterate? None of the dictionary definitions I found seem to jibe with its contextual usage.

David Wharton said...

Joe, here's what the OED says about "snarky":

Irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky’.

1906 E. NESBIT Railway Children ii. 49 Don't be snarky, Peter. It isn't our fault. 1913 J. VAIZEY College Girl xxiv. 326 ‘Why should you think I am “snarky”?’ ‘Becauseyou are! You're not a bit sociable and friendly.’ 1953 E. COXHEAD Midlanders x. 247 I've known you were the soul of kindness, under that snarky way. a1974 R. CROSSMAN Diaries (1976) II. 627 We also have to overcome something elsethe stream of anti-government propaganda, smearing, snarky, derisive, which comes out of Fleet Street.

Hence snarkily adv.; snarkiness; snarkish a.

1912 R. FRY Let. 16 Mar. (1972) I. 355 So sorry I seem so snarkish just now. 1960 Economist 28 May 859/2 In some of his comments on bureaucracy there is a relapse into snarkiness. 1967 Listener 20 July 91/3 Viewers' letters are not just read out. They are commented upon by Kenneth Robinson (usually rather snarkily).

Joe Guarino said...

Thanks, David. Pretty funny stuff-- literally. Some of us might have spent the better part of our adult lives being snarky without even knowing it. I guess I need to buy an OED.

Anonymous said...

...another one in this general context is the word ABSOLUTELY.....indicating any slight affirmative response.....OS

Sue Blogs said...

Think we can do anything about "its" and "it's" ?