Logophile Tuesdays: Could you care less?

Language is a fluid and evolving thing with meaning and usage changing at the merciless whims of fashion, culture, and time. There are some words and phrases, though, that have mutated into hideous monstrosoties and should be culled from the collective consciousness.

“Literally” has been abused so violently in big fish stories that it almost unusable for its original purpose. Once valued as a way of denoting a specific and true fact, it now indicates oncoming hyperbole, or impending metaphor. It is a word that has come to be its own antonym.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

And what about caring less? I cannot hope to describe it more eloquently than Sir David Mitchell.

What about you? Are there any butchered phrases that make you flip tables? Any blood-boiling malapropisms out there?

I can’t be the only one.




Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. You claim that the word “literally” is “almost unusable for its original purpose.” But wait — exactly how recently do you think this change has occurred? We’re skeptics, right? So let’s look at some evidence. Fortunately, the OED is a gold mine of evidence, so we can start there.

    Definition 1a says: “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” This definition’s first citation is dated 1429. That’s pretty impressive, I’ll give you that. Definition 1c is the one that you’re objecting to: “Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.” The first citation from this definition is dated 1769. Not as impressive, I’ll grant you, but I really feel that one can’t complain about a change that is over 200 years old. I mean, come on. Would you fault Mark Twain when he describes Tom Sawyer as “literally rolling in wealth” after pulling off his whitewashing trickery?

    Part of your complaint is that “literally” has become “its own antonym”. But I never hear anybody complain about “terrific”. It used to specifically mean terrible, terrifying. The first citation the OED has for a positive meaning is from 1871, so its change is even more recent. I’m sure there are other words that have come to mean their own opposite in that time period.

    However, I have to admit that I myself don’t see the situation the way you do. From my perspective, this is simply the case of a word with two different meanings, where the listener is expected to figure out which meaning is intended based on context — that is to say, a word. (Yes, there are words in English that have one and only one possible meaning, but they’re very much in the minority.) The first meaning is, as you say “not figuratively”, but I would disagree that the second meaning is simply an indicator of “impending metaphor”. I would instead define it as “not hyperbolically” — it’s used to indicate that the following phrase is not meant to be taken as casual hyperbole, but rather with all the original force the metaphor had before it became shopworn with overuse. To me it says “I know that this phrase gets used hyperbolically all the time, but this is NOT one of those times.” Having this second meaning attached to the word doesn’t detract from the first meaning any more than a bad movie adaptation detracts from the original book (maybe some, but not so much that you wouldn’t stop recommending it to people).

    It makes me wonder if something very much like this happened in prior centuries with the word “really”. I can imagine someone saying “He really takes the cake!” and someone else jumping on that with “Oh, he REALLY does? He takes a REAL cake? Because that’s what you just said!” Followed by a table-flipping. But in actuality you never hear anybody complaining about “really” having two meanings, basically the exact same two meanings as “literally”. Is it just because the word is older? Really?

    [tl;dr: Your favorite linguistic peeve is probably older than you think and just as sensible as other things you say without a second thought.]

  2. But, to answer your posed question: Yes. (I’m no more rational than anyone else.) My one real peeve is use of the word “sick” to mean excellent or powerful. A lousy word to be using in a positive manner, IMHO. The online OED has an entry for this definition (under “draft additions”), with the oldest citation being from 1983. That’s within my lifetime, at least — but at 30 years it’s time to accept it as a having already happened.

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