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<   No. 2301   2009-05-15   >

Comic #2301

1 Mordekai: So here we are, running for our lives through a dark subterranean maze again, with no idea where we're going.
2 Alvissa: There's a light at the end of the tunnel.
2 Mordekai: Yeah, sure.
3 Alvissa: No, literally!
3 Mordekai: Uh huh.
4 Alvissa: No, literally literally! {Light shines in from the direction they are running towards. Literally.}
4 Mordekai: Oh!

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The word "literally" has in recent years been downgraded in meaning in a lot of people's minds, especially those young whippersnappers of the younger generations (who should take their awful music and get off my lawn).

In many places, especially online, you will see people use the word "literally" simply as a metaphorical intensifier, something like "very much so":

OMG, it was so embarrassing, I literally died!
Well, no, you see, if you had literally died, you would be dead, and you wouldn't be around to tell me how embarrassed you were.

Of course this is one of those cases where usage drifts out of touch with the established meaning of a word. Language purists and, generally speaking, older people, think "literally" means "in actual fact", and many will declare any other usage as "wrong". But the people who are using the word "literally" just to put emphasis on their metaphors don't think it means that, and the people who are reading or listening to their usage mostly understand that they intend "literally" to mean "metaphorically, with emphasis". Communication happens, and the communicating parties are happy.

Fight it as much as we want to, us old fogies are not going to win. Language evolves. Fifty years from now, "literally" will primarily mean "metaphorically". There is no fighting it. If you think it won't happen, think about what "gay" means today, compared to 50 years ago.

This raises the problem of what we will say when we literally do mean "literally"...

2022-05-26 Rerun commentary: Coincidentally, as this rerun goes live, this very week I will be teaching an online class for kids on critical thinking, and the topic we'll be discussing is the meanings of words and how language evolves over time.

It's a fascinating topic, made more fascinating by the fact that I understand that language evolves and there's nothing wrong with that, but it still annoys me.

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