Not “Literally”

I’m not sure why the decision by various dictionaries to include the slangy emphatic sense of “literally” in their definitions has recently gotten play in the press, but there it is. An example of this sense is something like, “There are suddenly so many news articles whose headlines incorporate a joke using this sense of the word ‘literally’ that my head is literally going to explode.” (Not really. My head is not actually going to explode. I am just exaggerating for effect.) I’m pleased with the tone of the coverage. Most articles commend the change, recognizing that inclusion in the dictionary is not the same as endorsement in formal usage. I’m on board with the descriptivism, but not the particular word sense it describes. I avoid emphatic “literally”, both in writing in speech. To me it sounds not merely slangy, but wrong, though I have to think for a moment to see why.

Part of the meaning of “literallyemphatic X” is that X is not true. But more precisely, X is only strictly-speaking untrue, because X is an exaggeration. The interior of the car was not “literally a sauna” when we got inside after leaving it parked in the sun for hours. That is to say, it was not a small, wood-lined room filled with strangers naked expect for towels sitting on benches while they ladle water onto a bed of hot coals–but it was still pretty damn hot, so car interior = sauna is nonetheless true in some figurative sense. And another way of saying figurative is not literallytruth. “Literally” is its own antonym.

Big deal. Words that are their own antonyms are called autoantonyms, or contronyms, There aren’t a ton of them, but they do exist. “Dust” means both to remove dust from (“dust the furniture”) and put dust on (“dust the crops”). “Cleave” means both to hold together (“cleave to”) and split apart (“cleave in two”). An “apology” can be either a gesture of contrition or a vigorous defense. “Fast” can either connote rapid movement or no movement at all (“holding fast”).There are various lists online. They’re entertaining, mostly because we don’t even realize this phenomenon exists until it is pointed out. So what is special about “literally”? Why is it the autoantonym that annoys?

Looking through these lists reveals how hard it is to come up with a good autoantonym. One of the senses may be obscure: the vigorous defense sense of “apology” is an antiquated bit of scholarly jargon that no one uses anymore. Or there may be a syntactic distinction: “cleave” isn’t the opposite of itself, it’s the opposite of “cleave to”. Some of the least strained autoantonyms are verbalized nouns like “dust”, “seed”, and “stone” that can mean both to add and remove the noun from its verbalization’s direct object. However, a given direct object only ever works with one of the senses. When one seeds a watermelon, one does not to inject seeds into a it, and to stone a heretic is not to thoughtfully remove stones from a non-believer’s vicinity. The lack of overlap makes this feel like plain old polysemy instead of self-contradiction. Still other examples are semantically unconvincing. Yes, “fast” can mean both moving rapidly and not moving, but isn’t “slow” a better antonym than “stationary”? There is no binary sense of opposition here, so the example seems like a stretch.

Literallytruth/literallyemphatic has none of these problems. Neither sense is archaic. (Although the latter is frowned upon.) They are both simple adverbs, syntactically identical and fully productive. Furthermore, the truth or falsity of X unfailingly distinguishes literallytruth X from literallyemphatic X. (To see this, consider X’s in which the exaggerated version is plausible, e.g.“He was literally screaming at me.” If you can hear him in the next room it is the first sense. If he is hissing venomously at me under his breath it’s the second.) Arguably, exaggeration is the essence of the latter sense and untruth merely a side effect, but regardless the truth conditions of the two are consistently unaligned. Literally is literally not literally. Maybe its stigma comes from being a victim of its own autoantonymic success.

This seems a big part of it, but for me there’s another reason why literallyemphatic offends: its lack of resolve. If you’re going to exaggerate for effect, just do it. Don’t precede the exaggeration by saying “Hey, I’m about to exaggerate here.” That shows a lack of faith in either my intelligence or your skill as a creative liar. It’s like making air quotes with your fingers. Not wrong, just lame.

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