I am literally at the end of my tether  - Dreams and Dialects
So I know it's been quite a while since people started whinging about the definition of the word 'literally', but I am kinda really fed up of how often this still comes up in polite conversation so I just had to address the issue. 

So the definition of 'literally' has now officially changed to mean 'word for word' and 'figuratively/virtually', which essentially means 'not word for word'. And this has made many people very angry. 

I suppose I can see why this enrages people so much.
  1. A word they use has changed meaning
  2. That word is being used to mean the opposite of what it actually means
  3. The dictionary has accepted both definitions now!!!11

Yeah, so I'm going to address each of these points, which are essentially: semantic shift, auto-antonyms and lexicography. 

1. Semantic Shift

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin. 

Once upon a time there was a little word. Now this little word got used a lot, by many people, in many contexts. The little word got used in exaggerations, in metaphors, as slang, just to name a few. Eventually, it was barely used for its original meaning at all! And so people began to forget the original meaning of the little word. Subsequently, much to everyone's surprise, the world did not end and the English language did not collapse in on itself and the Anglosphere did not resolve to neanderthal-like grunting. 

The end.  

Here is a very short list of words that have undergone semantic shift (Spoiler: near enough any word you look up has changed meaning over the years)

Basically, if you're going to complain about the word 'literally' not meaning just 'word for word' anymore, then go ahead and start complaining about these too. Or else you'll be a hypocrite. And nobody likes a hypocrite. Unless you're going to go by the original meaning of hypocrite, because in that case, I think we all rather like hypocrites. 

2. Auto-antonyms

Okay, so maybe I've convinced you that semantic shift isn't so bad. It's a natural part of language development. But now your problem is that 'literally' is used to mean 'word for word' AND 'figuratively'. AND THEY'RE ANTONYMS. THIS IS LINGUISTIC SACRILEGE. 

Yeah, no. 

Words that can also be used to mean their own antonym (i.e. opposite) are known as auto-antonyms, and they are in fact super-cool. 

Sorry? What was that? You'd like another list? Oh, okay. 

  • Left means both 'gone' and 'remaining' (He left the room / He's the only one left)
  • Off means both 'no longer operating' and 'starting to operate' (The light's off / The alarm went off)
  • Either means both 'one or the other' and 'both' (You can either have it or leave it / There are trees on either side of the road)
  • Fine means both 'acceptable/satisfactory' and 'above average' (Yes, I suppose this essay is fine / This is a fine specimen)
  • Overlook means both 'to watch' and 'to fail to notice' (The children will be overlooked by a supervisor / I can't believe you overlooked all these spelling mistakes)
  • To put out means both 'to generate/produce' and 'to extinguish' (I put out a new album last year / I'll just put out this fire)
  • All over means both 'everywhere' and 'no more' (You have spaghetti sauce all over you... / I'm so sad that the summer is all over)
  • Trim means both 'to add' and 'to remove' (We trimmed the Christmas tree with tinsel / the shears)

And there are many more here and here and here. They're all over (ha) the place. And quite frankly they are lots of fun. So please, let's move on. 

3. Finally: Lexicography

And for those who complain about which words make the dictionary: The dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, the dictionary describes the words that people use in a language, it is not a guidebook for which words people 'should' be using. The way we speak to each other affects the dictionary, not the other way around. Language changes. All the time. Every language changes. If you find yourself disgusted by how young people use language remember that your parents probably thought the same of you. As did their parents. And theirs. And theirs. You see where I'm going with this. 

But if you're still really upset about it, well...

John Autin
12/29/2015 10:32:42 pm

Your blog is so wonderful. I found it by accident from googling, "why are Welsh spellings so strange"? (Typical American, right?) Anyway, your writing is so natural, direct and engaging. And your photos show a fantastic eye -- there are several that I wish I had prints of, especially the linear themes. After reading everything on your site, I feel sad that you seem to have stopped posting. Good luck, and I hope to see your work online again!


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