I’ve been frustrated, since high school, by a vertiginous decline in my working vocabulary. Part of this is the drugs and alcohol, of course, which come along with any college education. Why else was I losing my words? Up until that point, I had only learned more and more of them; never had I lost them, or seen this kind of decline in my ability to learn new ones.
If the first step of learning a new word is to admit that you don’t know it, the second step is to actually look it up yourself.
But again and again, looking up a word only meant that I would forget it before I had a chance to use it. My mind lost them, I was a sieve, I could not actually add new words to my lexicon: a frankly depressing concept for a writer.
This is why steps 3 and 4 are so important, and I’ll get to them next week.
Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox, or official first day of Spring.
The Equinox of course being Spring and Autumn’s version of the Solstice, which is what the Summer and Winter, the only real seasons anymore, get to have. Equinox means equal night—March 20th and September 20th being the only two days which have an equal amount of night.
Vernal means “having to do with spring.” When I learned this I was naturally disappointed, having thought to myself, “What does ‘vernal’ mean? Is it literally, ‘having to do with spring?’ I hope it has some tangential meaning like ‘rabbit-like,’ or ‘elongated’ or ‘perpetually disappointing.'” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it means—as in, The vernal buds of optimism spring upward, only to be snuffed out by a tardy frost.
Which thought process led me to literally, and how its definition is suddenly worth discussing.
Because literally has a new meaning going into dictionaries all over. A lot of people are in an uproar about this.
Understandably so. The alternate definition of “literally” is “emphatically,” which in turn means “so big that I needed to use a comparison or a metaphor,” which in turn means “figuratively,” which in turn means “not literally.” By which I mean, it’s a non-literal use of the word “literal.” As in, I literally love this band! Or, If I don’t get a drink in three seconds I am literally going to die. Or, People who use “literally” to mean “not literally” are literally retarded.
I’m not up in arms. Actually, I’m positively delighted about having the opportunity to talk about this.
The argument is one of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. In brief, prescriptivism is a linguistics principal that dictates that it is the job of dictionaries and other rulesy resources to tell people how language ought to be used. Therefore, dictionaries should only state the “correct” definitions. Descriptivism holds that, rather, dictionaries are there to describe how language is used. This way, if I see or hear a word and I don’t know it, I can ferret through all 3, 7, or 27 definitions of that word until I find the one that actually makes sense. (I.e., I can use a dictionary in the way it’s meant to be used.)
A prescriptivist would likely be irked by the incorrect use of literally, and not want it in a dictionary; descriptivists will generally demand that all uses of all words be listed.
Most people these days tend, ideologically, towards descriptivism, as much out of a desire not to seem like a colonizing jerk as out of a genuine understanding of the benefits of having a complete lexicon of human verbiage/usage.
The plot twist
Meanwhile, no matter what we say with our mouths, most of us are actually much more prescriptivist in our tendencies. We subconsciously, or consciously, think that our personal rules of pronunciation and meaning-making are right, and want to impose them on other people, whether or not we’re backed up by resources like dictionaries..
Thus why, when I left Philly to go to school, people made fun of me for calling creeks cricks; thus why I make humiliate my friends for saying bagel wrong; thus why I immediately judge people who say “amble-ance” instead of “am-byoo-lance.”
Children do this too, and they’re brutal about it. I’d go so far as to say that we’re instinctual prescriptivists all of us, trained to recognize subtlest differences in other people/things’ manners, in everything from linguistics, to accents, to styles of government, to what news agency you pay attention to, to what kinds of hats people in that country wear and how their food makes them smell weird. We’re so instinctually prescriptivist that we have a long history of starting wars and bar fights based on the pettiest distinctions: like which objectively unprovable deity you’re into, or whose wife you’re sleeping with.
I’m generally a descriptivist. Education and tolerance tend to make you one. Prescriptivism is generally irrational, fearful, cynical, and archaic.
When I read a definition, I find the original root, and trace the myriad complications and bastardizations of that root which had to occur before I could hold that word on my tongue. Every turn represents a point where some linguaphile or other was outraged, and then forgotten. A dictionary is the tingling flesh of the living thing which is language, and its million appendages are all proof of the miracle of the evolution of meaning.
As we stagger stumblingly toward my conclusion
Returning to literally, and its new usage (of which I am tolerant), I’m glad that they’re adding the new usage to the dictionaries.
Where did this meaning come from? Well, take for example usage sited in Webster’s: will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice. This does not suggest to me that the person who used it meant to say “emphatically”—rather, I think they meant to say “actually,” and actually did not know what that means in relation to figurative statements. That is to say, they don’t really know the meaning of “actually” or “figuratively” and have been bluffing their way the entire time.
So! Since the second meaning comes from people’s inability to tell the difference between the two, it is valuable to parse them on paper. It could be a valuable lesson for the people who do not understand this distinction. If we fail to do this, I fear that the one meaning might actually absorb the other, like a baby eating its twin in utero. Separating them is like dissecting a hemorrhaging appendix from an otherwise healthy body.
Additionally, like that appendix, that second definition should be put into a jar, and shown for the ugly growth that it is. It is the result of ignorance; in the definition a caveat should state this. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat gratifyingly, calls it “informal,” I propose that they indicate when a usage is actually a “misnomer.”Be aware of this meaning, the lexicon cries, but avoid it! It’ll make you sound ignorant! Because it does.