I Literally Died, or Why the Dictionary Is Wrong Now and It’s All Our Fault
It seems like all my blog posts are about how to get under an editor’s skin. (But it’s so fun!) It’s easier to do than you might think; all it takes is using a few words the way they’re commonly used—incorrectly. Below is a rundown of some words that a lot of people use wrong all the time without even realizing it. (Editors, grammar enthusiasts, and word nerds: brace yourselves.)
The way we use language to communicate with one another is important. In the ongoing war against the complete dissolution of the English language into meaningless grunts (only a slightly hyperbolic representation of the situation), some words serve as stalwart fortresses, their meanings unquestionable (like “potato” or “push”, which almost never get used incorrectly), and there are other words that make up more disputed territory. The words in this latter category get used incorrectly, but not egregiously so. Nevertheless, misusing these words might land you in hot water with your favorite red pen-wielding editor.
You might describe someone “perusing the shelves” in a bookstore as she scans the titles for her favorite authors’ names—the word is used that way all the time—but you’d be wrong. “Peruse” is typically used synonymously with “browse” or “skim”, but its traditional meaning is actually quite the opposite: to read thoroughly and with great care, or to pore over. Most editors and experts agree on the correct meaning, and you probably won’t come to blows defending this definition.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve read this word being used to mean “displeased” or “unimpressed”, but that’s not how the dictionary defines it. If we’re following the dictionary definition, “nonplussed” actually means “confused”. Like “peruse”, a helpful reminder is probably all it will take to steer the hapless writer toward the correct usage.
More often than not “ambivalent” is used when someone doesn’t feel strongly about either of two options. You might hear someone say “I can’t decide between pizza and sushi. I don’t care. You pick, man, I’m totally ambivalent.” What the speaker (who should obviously choose pizza, I mean, come on) means is that they have no particular leaning toward either food, that he or she is apathetic about the decision. What “ambivalent” means, on the other hand, is slightly different: that the speaker is equally drawn in both directions, torn between the two. The word “ambivalent” is derived from the Latin words “ambi”, meaning both (like “ambidextrous”, someone who can write with both hands), and “valentia”, meaning strength. While the discussion may get heated, you can probably end this conversation without resorting to fisticuffs.
Words Worth Fighting For
Some words are definitely in trouble. These poor terms have been battered and bent over time, so the people who use these words will probably be defensive if confronted with the appropriate pages from the OED. All is not lost, though. The correct definitions of these words aren’t lost yet, and they’re still worth fighting.
Your friends might describe themselves as nauseous after one too many spins on the merry-go-round, but what they almost certainly mean is that they’re nauseated. The words are both medical terms, which might be why the average layperson is likely to misuse them. “Nauseous” is used to refer to something that causes nausea, like a disgusting smell, while “nauseated” is how we describe people who are experiencing nausea. So unless your friends are particularly repulsive, they’re likely not nauseous at all, but nauseated.
Ironic — Looking At You, Alanis
This one is a classic example of the meaning of a word getting buried under all the misuses. Alanis Morissette’s 1995 song “Ironic“, while pretty catchy, contains almost no irony by the classic definition. (Helpfully, a comedy writer and her musically talented sister updated the song so that it would actually be ironic as a service to the English speaking community in 2013.) Some examples from the original song help illustrate my point: “It’s like rain on your wedding day“, “it’s like a free ride when you’ve already paid”, and “he won the lottery and died the next day” are all examples of bad timing or unfortunate coincidence—but not irony. Irony is defined as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result”. So those kids wearing shirts emblazoned with the logo of a product they hate because it amuses them to be contrary are doing so ironically. (They’re also hipsters.)
Losing The Battle
All the words that came before are varying shades of contentious—some people feel strongly about the use of “nauseous” where the writer means “nauseated” but feel apathetic about the use of “ambivalent” (see what I did there?). But despite frequent misuse of the words, their dictionary definitions have remained stolidly static. The last word I’ll mention here is a different case.
If there is one word over which language enthusiasts, grammarians of both the new and old school, and dictionary traditionalists lose sleep, it is “literally”. Over the centuries since the word came into common usage, “literally” has meant one thing, and one thing only: ” in a literal manner or sense; exactly”. For example, “He told the funniest joke I’ve ever heard—I literally fell out of my chair. Look, I sprained my wrist!” is a correct (if unfortunate) use of the word. Sometime in the recent past, though, the meaning of this word started warping. Eventually, people started to use it to mean literally the opposite of what it had originally, peppering into stories as a means of expressing exaggeration through hyperbole or metaphor. No doubt you’ve heard someone say “I could literally eat a thousand cheeseburgers right now, I’m starving,” or “I literally died, I was so embarrassed.” So, which definition is right?
Well, this particular battle has been lost (or won, depending on whom you ask). In 2013 the Oxford Dictionaries announced that they had amended the definition of the word “literally” to reflect modern usage. The new definition includes the looser, more colloquial use: “informal: used for emphasis while not being literally true”. (The fact that the word to be defined is used in the definition apparently only bothers me.)
For some, this redefinition is the death knell of the English language, the first in a series of linguistic failures that will see all communication withered and devoid of meaning in the span of a paltry few generations. To others, this is a natural step, maybe even a necessary one, in the continuing and living history of a living language. Everyone who cares about this issue is divided into two camps: the traditionalists, who held that the original dictionary definition was the only valid option, and those I’ll call the “evolutionaries”, who believe that language is an ever-changing fluid construct that should serve the people who use it to express themselves and not be hemmed in by arbitrary and antiquated rules. What is “right” isn’t going to stay the same forever—our language is filled with words whose meanings have evolved to the point where they’re previous definitions seem alien and comical. (Take a look at the etymology of “quaint” sometime.) On the other hand, if a word can have two opposing definitions, what does it even mean? That’s a good question, and certainly one worth considering. Ultimately, though, I think language is only as meaningful as the way it’s used. If we use the word “literally” to mean two things, then maybe it does.
For my part, I try to play my lexical cards close to the vest. The issue of how to use words, of what the “right” definition of a word might be, is pretty divisive. I’ve found myself drawn to both sides of the argument about how to use “literally”, and the result is total ambivalence. I want language to be uniform enough to be understood clearly, but I’m also very much in favor of creativity and responsiveness in language. I try not to come down too hard on either side of this issue, at least not in public. The last thing I need is angry emails. But, for anyone who is filled with burning curiosity about this editor’s opinion about the word “literally”, I can only point to the title of this blog post.