Literally minded

March 14, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Let the record show that, for my part, I prefer to use literally in its literal sense. I would never says that its misuse would make my head literally explode.

The second reason for not saying that is that literally, as HeadsUp: The Blog points out in a post, has multiple meanings, including, well, "figuratively" or "for all intents and purposes." You can find that in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage and in the works of respectable writers over a long span. As fev points out, "Grownup reference books note that the extended sense reverses the original meaning. As the nice folks at Merriam-Webster put it, 'hyperbole requires care in handling.' But the world didn't end when this meaning crept into English in the 18th century, and it's at little risk of collapsing from a touch of well-worn hyperbole in the 21st." 

This is apt to unsettle some folks given to cranky crotchets (Clark Elder Morrow springs to mind) to which they give pride of precedence over empirical evidence, and I expect that some of them will also argue, from logic, that a word cannot be expected to mean a thing and its opposite.

As it happens, English has a goodly number of autoantonyms, words that do precisely that: cleave, sanction, dust (v.), weather (v.), oversight, and many more. Readers are expected to possess the wit to gather the meaning in context, and most readers contrive to do that.

With English, it doesn't pay to be too much of a literalist.

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