DailyDirt: Can We At Least Agree On The Meanings Of Words?

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

There are all kinds of silly arguments online, but perhaps the most common are arguments over the meanings of words. Some folks like to think that words should have static definitions, and all other usage is incorrect usage. Others don’t care about the exact meaning of words, and they’re not careful with their word choices… or they just make up new words to fit whatever they’re trying to say. Language is funny; it evolves and changes — and sometimes people are just wrong in how they choose their words. Here are just a few examples of word meanings that hopefully don’t set off some crazy semantic arguments.

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Comments on “DailyDirt: Can We At Least Agree On The Meanings Of Words?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Trouble With ?Literally? ...

I have argued this before and while I hate to see language being shaped by misuse, a word to specifically indicate that you mean what you say in the straightest sense is useless. Well, you can use it to tell people they’re abusing it. So far I really haven’t seen someone use “literally” with its literal meaning other than to tell people they’re misusing it. Which makes sense – in written language you’re either really writing what you mean, or it’s some metaphor-heavy prose and of course you wouldn’t put “literally” in there; in speech you disambiguate naturally with no need for “literally”.

Really, about the only thing that makes me sad now is how I cannot say “The literal meaning of literally is literally useless”, because “literally” now has a useful literal meaning.

Jay (profile) says:

My favorite thing about the word “terrific” is from the mind of Terry Pratchet

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes, look behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.
? Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

Rekrul says:

Two of my pet peeves;

Using the phrase “not even” to add emphasis to something. Ex. “I saw the whole accident! I’m not even lying!” It just sounds really stupid.

Adding the letters “ed” to the end of words to create the past tense, rather than using the proper form of the word. One article I read the other day said (sayed?) that Miley Cyrus “grinded” up against her singing partner at the VMAs. Grinded? Is that like drived? Or thinked? How about goed or doed? Seeed? Bleeded? Throwed?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If your point is that “if everyone thinks a word means something, that’s what it means”, you are correct on some level.

But if we accept this as the new meaning of “literally”, we are left without a word for the old meaning of “literally”, and if we invent one, some people will just use THAT to mean “figuratively”, for the same reasons they use “literally” wrong.

Some may ask, “But can’t the word just have two meanings?” Not in this case. You are asking us to accept a meaning which is the opposite of the original meaning. If I say “He was glued to his seat”, that’s probably a metaphor. If I say “He was literally glued to his seat”, that’s SUPPOSED to mean that I’m not using a metaphor and actual glue is involved. But if we accept this new meaning, “literally” is STILL ambiguous, and I have to say something like “no, really, there was actual glue involved, this is not a metaphor.” And that’s just silly when there is a perfectly good word that is supposed to have that meaning.

And what’s the gain of this new meaning of “literally”? What does it bring to the language? Easier use of already-overused cliches?

allengarvin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“You are asking us to accept a meaning which is the opposite of the original meaning.”

So? Such things are already common enough that we have a word for entire class: contranym. You can run fast, or you can be stuck fast. You determine what is meant by context.

The figurative use of literal (which is NOT new–it’s almost as old as the word itself) is most often used in the context of hyperbole. There’s the context needed.

Words naturally accrue other meanings as time passes. “Truly”, “really”, and “actually” for a brief time meant in a true, real, or actual manner. They still can mean that, in context. Or, in other context, like hyperbole:

It’s been such a dismal day I’m really dying for some amusement,” said Meg

(from Alcott’s Little Women).

Anyway, partisans for literal literally’s lost the fight before it ever began. It’s been used that way for over 300 years now. No one objected to it for two centuries. If you wanted to stop it, you should have started trying in the late 17th century.

Postulator (profile) says:

I cannot accept the new definition of “literally”. It goes against all common sense, and removes the ability to actually mean what the word has traditionally meant.

If you mean “figuratively”, use the correct word. It’s not that difficult, as long as you know the language – and a large proportion of the people who get it wrong earn their living from language. If you are a journalist who does not know the difference between literal and figurative, you’re in the wrong job.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not a native speaker, so forigve me if I am wrong, but couldn’t the word ‘literally’ be replaced by the word ‘actually’?

Personally I find the change interesting and somewhat justified – since ‘literally’ means ‘written down’. And we all know that just because something has been written (newspaper, internet) doesn’t mean it is actually true.

John85851 (profile) says:

Dictionaries should not follow society's usage

Personally, I think changing words to follow society’s usage is a slippery slope. How long will it be until these words are changed:
* They’re, there, and their will now mean “they are”. Example as seen on Facebook: There going home to get there clothes.
* New word: “Would of”, which means “would’ve” or “would have”. See also: “could of” and “should of”. Example: I should of worn a jacket.
* To, too, and two will now mean “also” or “2”, depending how it’s used in context. Example: We wanted two go on to rides, but we should of brought money.

Some people complain that spelling shouldn’t matter as long as the point is coming across. This may be true (or it may not), but when did society become so lazy that we can’t take 2 seconds to know the difference between “there” and “their”?

Kiersyn (profile) says:

While “literally” has indeed been historically used in the sense of adding emphasis and thus is not a new phenomenon, this is not why this vexing definition was added to the dictionary. The general standard for a word’s inclusion is whether it is widely used or not. It would be much easier to accept new inclusions or definitions if there was a distinction made between generally accepted usage as a result of conscious choice and generally accepted usage as a result of unmitigated stupidity.

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