The abuses of ‘literally,’ and how nice thoughts can help.

Normally, I am more of a descriptive linguist than a prescriptive one. Language, after all, is a living dynamic thing that is constantly in use and being changed by its speakers. New words get picked up, old words are forgotten, and over the years, many meanings drift into something else entirely. Occasionally, however, I want to put my prescriptivist foot down in the name of clarity.

The goal of language is to communicate ideas as clearly as possible, which makes the hazards of generic words or multiple meanings all the more challenging. Recently, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has accepted the new popular meaning of ‘literally’, which is literally the opposite of the actual definition. This is unfortunate, since it pretty much renders the word useless and condemns it to join the generic emphasis ranks with ‘very’ and ‘really.’

Literally

Words do change over time, and this one may have literally drifted too far to be useful in its older context. It’s sad, because it is such a good word, and has a wealth of nuances and connotations, particularly in its complete rejection of figurative interpretation, which none of its synonyms quite capture. That said, this is English, and if we need a word with a particular meaning, we’ll probably just steal it from somewhere else.

Whenever I get annoyed by changing word usage, I try to remind myself of two things: How much that word has probably changed before I first heard it, and ‘nice.’ I’ll get to ‘nice’ in a moment.

‘Literal’ has a fairly straightforward etymology, considering how long it’s been with us. We got ‘letter’ from Old French in the 13th century, from which we eventually derived literal and literature (Late Middle English), then alliteration in the early 17th century. The French got it from the Latin ‘littera’ which meant either a written communication or an alphabetic symbol, and both meanings got carried through to English. The Latin ‘litteralis’ also tagged along, meaning ‘of a letter,’ which contributed more directly to the derivation of ‘literal’ or literally.’

In essence, the word literally hasn’t changed much until recently, so on we go to ‘nice.’ Here’s a word with a more interesting drift of meanings. It started out as two words in Latin, ‘ne-’ (not) and ‘scire’ (know), which gave rise to ‘nescire’ meaning to not know, or to be ignorant. This gave us the word ‘nescience,’ which we still have in English as an adjective meaning ignorance or lack of knowledge, but that didn’t get added until the early 17th century. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Nescience

Middle English picked up ‘nice’ from Old French around the 14th century with the meaning of ‘simple or silly,’ and it rapidly picked up connotations of wanton and foolish. This can be seen in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, where he speaks of ‘nice wenches,’ meaning disreputable women. It developed a range of largely negative senses, from ‘dissolute’, ‘ostentatious, showy’, ‘unmanly, cowardly’, and ‘delicate, fragile’ to ‘strange, rare’, and ‘coy, reserved.’ Around the 16th century, it started to be used in a more positive sense, as ‘fine, subtle or precise,’ as in “a nice distinction.” Then it gently tumbled into ‘pleasant, kind,’ from the mid 18th century on.

So if a word can go through that impressive a range of meanings and connotations without bothering us, I suppose I can put my prescriptive stomping-shoe back in the closet. I’ll just hunt down a new word that I can use instead of literally going crazy. Isn’t that nice?

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