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The 300-Year History of Using ‘Literally’ Figuratively

An East Village bar recently got attention for its supposed ban on patrons who misuse the word “literally.” Photo: Michael Piazza/Getty Images

As a lexicographer, I pay close attention to the latest linguistic scuttlebutt to erupt on social media. Last week introduced me to the Continental bar in the East Village, and owner Trigger Smith’s screed against “literally”:

Folks love a good linguistic peeve, and the figurative or emphatic “literally” is a fan favorite. It’s practically a rite of new-media passage to write a piece dismissing “literally,” and when someone discovered in 2013 that most American dictionaries entered a sense for “literally” that covered its figurative uses, lexicographers were inundated with angry emails and phone calls. Smith detailed his antipathy to Grub Street, and many emphatic “literally” naysayers likely nodded in agreement. “Since it’s English, it’s probably happening in England, and maybe Australia […] I had a woman from Miami the other night tell me it’s happening down there,” he says. “And it’s not just millennials. Now you hear newscasters using ‘literally’ every three minutes on the Sunday news shows.”

The emphatic “literally” is not a millennial invention; it goes back to the 1700s at least, though Smith gets it right that it’s English. John Dryden, a man who is best known as the founder of literary criticism and the prohibition against the terminal preposition, was an early user of the emphatic “literally.” Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace all used the emphatic “literally” in their works. Even Lindley Murray, 19th-century grammarian, uses the hyperbolic “literally” in his own grammar — and he was such a peever that he thought children, along with animals, shouldn’t be referred to with the pronoun “who,” as “who” conveys personhood, and only creatures with the ability to be rational are actually people.

We only began to take issue with the hyperbolic “literally” in the early 20th century. Ambrose Bierce called it “intolerable,” and usage maven H. W. Fowler said it should be “repudiated.” Dislike of the emphatic “literally” has become so prevalent that the word routinely shows up on lists of words that should be banned. Google Chrome users in particular no longer need suffer; they can download an extension for their browser that changes every instance of “literally” to “figuratively.”

Back at the Continental, Smith insisted that his bar’s sign was tongue-in-cheek, but that his hatred of the emphatic “literally” was very serious. “I had a dream, and it felt like a higher power was speaking to me,” Smith told NPR, “saying, ‘It is your task to put an end to the over-usage of this word.’”

There was a backlash, of course, but it wasn’t Smith’s hatred of “literally” that started it. It was the final line of his posted sign: “Stop Kardashianism now.”

“Kardashianism” here, of course, refers to the speech patterns of the people in Keeping Up With the Kardashians, most of whom are young women. The emphatic “literally” shows up in their dialogue a fair bit, enough that it’s often highlighted in articles or lists about the language of the Kardashians. It’s guilt by association: Because the Kardashians are seen as risible, so, too, is the language that the Kardashians typically use.

Complaining about other people’s language (one’s own being above reproach, of course) is practically a national pastime, but dragging a bunch of young women into a usage screed struck some as sexist. Writer Sara Cress summed it up on Twitter: “I’d much rather see bars take a hard line against harassment in their establishments than being smug about the particulars of young women’s speaking patterns.”

Smith told Grub Street that the charges of sexism were laughable, and explained to Time Out New York that there was no way he could enforce the policy. (“How could I mean that? How could I be serious?”) All the backpedaling gives the impression that he’s “peeving on principle.” This is a common defense among peevers: They don’t necessarily hate the people who use the emphatic “literally.” Their hatred of the emphatic “literally” is based on the logic that a word should not change to the point that its meanings contradict themselves. Once words change that way, it’s a disease: “It’s contagious,” Smith says of the emphatic “literally.” This turns the dislike of a word into evidence of general lexical degradation and nothing more.

Unfortunately, that’s not how language works. This isn’t Plato; our language isn’t some murky shadow on a wall cast by a pure, ideal language that’s hanging out just beyond our view. Language is tied inextricably to the people who use it. It’s a tool we use for communication — and it’s also liable to be used as a bludgeon. We peeve to make it clear that we are better-educated, smarter, and even slightly morally better than those dingbats who use the emphatic “literally.”

Young women have been targeted as linguistic dingbats for a long time. Let’s set aside complaints about women’s physical voices — such as the prevalence of uptalk or vocal fry — as that’s a harangue for another time. Let’s focus entirely on the words ascribed to women. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, made famous in his 14th-century Canterbury Tales, uses filler words and meaningless emphatic phrases all over the place. Her copious “verrays,”, “wels,” “fuls,” “sos,” and “God woots” (“God knows”) are all hyperbolic — and used by Chaucer to paint her as a flighty, empty-headed gossip who can’t shut up. Even when she’s detailing an outrage against her, she can’t lay off the hyperbolic language:

It is my good as wel as thyn, pardee!

What, wenestow make an ydiot of oure dame?

Now by that lord that called is Seint Jame,

Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood,

Be maister of my body and of my good;

In the argot of our times, that passage translates:

It’s mine as well as yours, gawd!

OMG, are you trying to make me look stupid?

JFC, I swear,

IDGAF how angry you are, you can’t be

master of my body and my property!

Chaucer was just satirizing women’s speech, but actual attempts to correct women’s speech continued on. Seventeenth-century writers often instructed young women to be quiet and dumb. “To discourse of state matters,” advises Richard Brathwait in 1641, “will not become your auditory [audience].” William Whatley’s 1617 wedding sermon tells wives that their words to their husbands should “carry the stamp of fear about them, and not be cutted [cutting], sharp, sullen, passionate, tetchy.” William Gouge, in his revised 1634 Of Domestical Duties, doesn’t beat around the bush: “As [wives’] words must be few, so those words must be reverend and meek: both which are also implied under the forenamed word, silence.”

Women’s silence doesn’t serve the language well. Linguists and lexicographers acknowledge that linguistic innovation, and therefore linguistic survival, starts with youth speech, and especially the speech of young women. Studies show that women are much quicker than men to blast ahead into new linguistic territory, and they seemingly always have been. Linguists analyzing letters from the 17th century have shown that women switched to “you” instead of “ye” and the third-person “-s” (as in “makes”) instead of “-eth” (“maketh”) quicker than men. Recent studies have shown women are usually about a generation ahead of men in terms of being on the cutting edge of language change.

And yet. From wives to suffragettes, from flappers to feminists, from Valley Girls to Kardashians, we’ve made a habit of deploring the language that young women use and treating it like it’s the linguistic Antichrist. And that is why people leveled charges of sexism against Trigger Smith, despite his insistence that he’s “a feminist who supports women’s rights and is 100 percent behind this whole ‘Me Too’ thing.” According to the details dropped in the Grub Street article, Smith takes delight in being a turd-stirrer — his bar had previously banned “saggy jeans” — and so we could assume that his latest cri de coeur to “stop Kardashianism now!” is more of the same.

But those sentiments still reinforce the idea that the speech of young women isn’t just empty frippery, but an active force of evil tearing apart our language. And since language isn’t disembodied, that side-eye given to the speech of young women is also given to the young women themselves. TMZ’s widely shared headline about this kerfuffle blares, “Kardashians Will Get You Kicked Out of NYC Bar, Literally.” The narrative had shifted: This was no longer the story of a guy who hated the word “literally” and put up a jokey sign about it at his bar for yuks and publicity. This was now just one more way that the Kardashians have ruined dive bars for all of us. It’s Kourtney’s fault you can’t get Jägermeister shots at the Continental. (The bar is closing, anyway. That is not Kourtney’s fault.)

Smith has said he plans on keeping up his anti-“literally” crusade as he heads into his next venture — and since this is a free country, he has every right to do so. There is nothing anyone can do to stop Smith from deriding the emphatic “literally” for being vapid and overused.
But tying its rise (and English’s demise) to the Kardashians or any other young woman is literally, emphatically ridiculous.

The 300-Year History of Using ‘Literally’ Figuratively