'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Sharing my Lunch with You.

I went to a bit of trouble with my lunch the other day.  It ended up looking so pretty, I just had to share it with you.
Now, is that sharing, metaphorically, or figuratively speaking?  Is there a difference?

I don't know.

But it's certainly not literally.  I notice this word is being used a lot these days, when people mean anything but.

The other day I heard: "That guy drove so close to my tail, he was literally up my a*se!" (Doesn't bear thinking about!)

Sports commentators do it.  Politicians do it.
Nick Clegg and others.  

 Some would like to set us straight with posters and teeshirts:

Ministers do it:
Jerry Falwell: "If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America! If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children who get in its way … and our nation will pay a terrible price!”

The 'Oatmeal' Gayroller.

@threadworm (the voice of reason)

"Many terms that function as intensifiers (i.e. words that strengthen/amplify the meaning of the word or phrase that they qualify) have earlier meanings that map quite poorly onto their role as intensifiers. Think of "so," "really," "awfully," "terribly." But we accept these readily because they have had the role of intensifier long enough for their other meanings to lie dormant when we hear them operating as such.
The only difference with "literally" is that its role as an intensifier is newer, so its other meaning still clamours in our mind when we hear it. The anxiety about this new role for "literally" is just the usual case of pedantry failing to keep up with linguistic evolution.
There are also words that do the opposite of intensifying -- words that dampen the strength of the terms they qualify -- "fairly," "quite," "rather," etc. And these too tend to have earlier meanings that map poorly onto their "dampening" role.
"Quite" is a brilliant example. It means something like "exactly" rather than "only a little bit." But we readily accept its use as a dampner, in expressions like "I'm quite hungry, but not very." AND we accept its use to the opposite effect, as an intensifier: the expression "You are quite right," means something like "You are very right," not "You are a little bit right."
Words have their own lives and careers."

My kids criticise me for not accepting that language is changing.  It seems that the word 'literally' is simply being used more and more as an intensifier or emphasiser.

I guess I just have to get over it.  Literally!


  1. In my entire life I have never heard anyone say, "I'm quite hungry, but not very."

    I'm quite sure of it.

  2. now if you put that plate on the wall kath you could get bloody loads for a modern day work of art!

  3. Robert - if you say the 'quite' a little louder, it has a different meaning. Well, here in Kiwiland, it does.
    eg - 'it's QUITE nice' means 'not very nice.'

    John... You think so? So, which wall shall I hang it? I want bloody load$!

  4. Your lovely lunch has too many Good Things and not sufficient emphasis on cheese. As a work of art do you think that the two biscuits with the sprouts should be separated? Just a thought.

    I'm still of the figurative means means metaphorical or analogous and literal means, well, literal school. Oddly I have a draft post ready as a result of a debate here on the Oxford comma. I may well add the literal discussion into it.

  5. Geeb... I know you would have more cheese! But I have to watch my fat intake. All this sedentary painting, y'know!

    I didn't really plan the lunch as a piece of art, but you are probably right re. the two sprouts. If it was art.

    I'm in Havelock North this weekend. Father had ash on his car too.

  6. The phrase "pedantry failing to keep up with linguistic evolution" is an interesting one. Does it imply that anything goes and that when ever we "pedants" raise our eyebrows about language use we are in the wrong? I thoroughly accept the exciting concept of language evolution but I am equally as passionate about accurate use of English. Misuse of "literally" has more to do with laziness and dumbness than language evolution. I know you are far too young to remember this Katherine but back in the sixties the term "fabulous" was adopted to express various shades of approval without recognising that truly fabulous things are connected with the world of legend and "fable" - beyond the everyday. When it comes to language use, must we all be sheep absorbed by the flock?

    1. I know, I know YP. I remember in the seventies wondering what I could use to exclaim over the vastness of the universe because the word "awesome" was being used for the likes of a new hair style.

  7. And, to lend credence to what Y.P. said, the term "terrific" originally meant frightening, inciting terror.

    Here's a helpful hint in reading the dictionary (you do read the dictionary, don't you): The definitions are listed not in order of importance but in reverse chronological order (the first definition is the most recent; the last definition is the oldest).

    1. That's interesting Robert. I didn't realise that. So I suppose dictionaries accept that useage changes.

  8. You have an awful healthy lunch

    1. Ha! Very good Ben. And English isn't even your first language. (I think?)

    2. English certainly is not my first language. But if I want to survive in my professional world I need to know something about it. In the Dutch language however I like to play with words.

  9. Well, that's interesting Ben, because I have never met any Dutchman who DIDN'T like playing with words, especially English ones.

  10. Dit is de manier waarop we spelen met woorden, spelen met woorden, spelen met woorden. Dit is de manier waarop we spelen met woorden, vroeg in de ochtend.

    1. You're driving me around the mulberry bush Robert.

    2. This is the translation of a famous English song?

  11. A google translation, I suspect Ben.