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. If you'd like to read more awesome and interesting stuff, check out this unrelated (but not entirely random!) Techdirt post via StumbleUpon.


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  1.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:14pm

    The Trouble With “Literally” ...

    ... is that then we end up with no word that means “literally”.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:17pm

    If communicating parties cannot agree on the definition of the words they are using, they aren't really communicating.

     

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  3.  
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    Jay (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:26pm

    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

     

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  4.  
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    slinkySlim, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:28pm

    Re: The Trouble With “Literally” ...

    That's literally terrific!

     

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  5.  
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    Ox, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:35pm

    This reminds me of a quote off Bash.org

    Correct grammar is the difference between "Helping my Uncle Jack off a horse" and "helping my Uncle jack off a horse"

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:48pm

    This is so gay.

     

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  7.  
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    Paul Renault (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:50pm

    I once had someone tell me,...

    ...after describing some ordeal they had had days earlier, that after that they were "literally dead".

    To which, dumbfounded, I could only reply: "You literally don't know the meaning of the word 'literally'.

     

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  8.  
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    silverscarcat (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:51pm

    Re: This reminds me of a quote off Bash.org

    that's punctuation there.

     

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  9.  
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    DV Henkel-Wallace (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 5:56pm

    Literally

    I just learned a pun that is appropriate here:

    Q: You know why kleptomaniacs don't understand puns?

    A: Because they take everything, literally!

    Thank you, I'll be here all week. Try the veal.

     

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  10.  
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    Nate, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 6:19pm

    The grammar-nazis are actually wrong on this one. The historical use of the word literally includes using it for emphasis.

    Mark Twain, Jane Austen, James Joyce, and any number of authors have used the word literally to mean figuratively:
    http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2013/08/14/why-the-grammar-nazis-are-literally-wron g/

     

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  11.  
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    Rekrul, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 6:34pm

    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?

     

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  12.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 6:43pm

    Re: The grammar-nazis are actually wrong on this one

    Your comment leaves me literally head over heels.

     

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  13.  
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    allengarvin (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 6:48pm

    Re: "grinded"

    "Grinded" was not uncommon 2 centuries ago:

    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=grinded&year_start=1797&year_end=2000&a mp;corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

    Clicking on the examples, they look like typical well-edited text of the period.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 6:58pm

    Re:

    If Mark Twain used literally to mean figuratively, then he was wrong. Literally means literally. It does not mean the opposite of literally.

    Also, http://xkcd.com/1108/

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:06pm

    "Can We At Least Agree On The Meanings Of Words?"

    Apparently not

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:07pm

    Re: Re:

    There is literally an xkcd for everything

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:09pm

    Possibly those who have been misusing the word "literally" finally realized their error and convinced the big dictionary people to help them save face, because they will never admit to being wrong.

     

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  18.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:32pm

    Words

    Language is only the transfer of thoughts from one person to another. Words cannot exist without thought, but thought does exist without words. As long as the thought is transferred, the words used are irrelevant.

     

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  19.  
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    gyffes, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:34pm

    The irony is

    people dumb enough to conflate the two don't know how to look words up in the dictionary.

     

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  20.  
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    Postulator (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 7:45pm

    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.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 8:01pm

    "Give me Literally, or give me Death!" - Patrick Henry

     

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  22.  
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    BentFranklin (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 8:27pm

    Re:

    Define "meaning".

     

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  23.  
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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 8:51pm

    Re: There is literally an xkcd for everything

    Ah, but is there an xckd for that?

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 9:06pm

    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?

     

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  25.  
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    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 9:28pm

    Re: Re: This reminds me of a quote off Bash.org

    It's capitalization, if you're going to be picky.

    How about "A man chasing a cat with a broom in his underwear is ambience by any definition"?

     

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  26.  
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    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 9:32pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Your post literally made my head explode.

    ... No. Seriously. There are fresh brains on my walls and ceiling.

     

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  27.  
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    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 9:35pm

    Re: Words

    I don't understand what you just said.

     

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  28.  
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    EvilBill (profile), Aug 28th, 2013 @ 9:49pm

    Opposite of Figuratively

    It antifiguratively bothers me what has happened to the word litterally.

     

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  29.  
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    Jason, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 10:47pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Having two opposing meanings of 'literally' is easily overcome by some basic understanding of context. There is absolutely no reason to get lost in the mix.

    Elsewise, your clarifying statement is equally void, since "really" has the EXACT SAME DUALITY.

     

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  30.  
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    Jason, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 10:49pm

    Re: The Trouble With “Literally” ...

    How about "really"? "Really" actually has the same duality, and we seem to get along just fine with that.

    Actually, is actually quite helpful, too.

     

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  31.  
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    Jason, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 10:58pm

    Re:

    I'm sorry, but when you say, "they aren't really communicating" did you mean that

    - they, in actuality, are not communicating (at all)?
    OR
    - they (simply) aren't communicating to their fullest potential?

    Because "really" literally does the same thing as literally, actually.

     

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  32.  
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    Jason, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 11:04pm

    Re:

    The functional value of 'grinded' is that it serves to distinguish an act of dance from what sounds more like an act of violence.

    Although, I'm not sure Thickie feels any less violated for it.

     

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  33.  
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    Jason, Aug 28th, 2013 @ 11:06pm

    Re: Re:

    Don't forget to correct Charles Dickens.

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 1:13am

    people get so wound up about words, especially when you misspell or use "improperly". really words are just a way to allow us to communicate. as long as you can make your point clear enough for others to understand who cares if it's not proper spelling or grammar.

     

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  35.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 1:34am

    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.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 2:24am

    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.

     

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  37.  
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    Paul Renault (profile), Aug 29th, 2013 @ 4:31am

    Re: Re: There is literally an xkcd for everything

     

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  38.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 4:42am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    So you argue that definitions literally make no difference because everything is found within context.

    This has some merit, although the level of understanding is diminished.

     

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  39.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 4:44am

    Re: Opposite of Figuratively

    illiterally ?

     

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  40.  
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    allengarvin (profile), Aug 29th, 2013 @ 5:54am

    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.

     

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  41.  
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    Cowards Anonymous, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 2:26pm

    So does "literally" literally mean figuratively now, or does it figuratively mean literally?

    I'm literally confused. Will figuratively soon be informally defined as having a literal or exact meaning?

     

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  42.  
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    Anonymous, Aug 29th, 2013 @ 2:28pm

    Re: Re: Words

    Telepathic communication.

     

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  43.  
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    John85851 (profile), Aug 29th, 2013 @ 3:43pm

    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"?

     

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    Kiersyn (profile), Aug 29th, 2013 @ 5:58pm

    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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  45.  
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    nasch (profile), Aug 29th, 2013 @ 9:07pm

    Re: Re: The Trouble With “Literally” ...

    How about "really"? "Really" actually has the same duality, and we seem to get along just fine with that.

    No it doesn't. Other than used sarcastically, which is true of any word, "really" always means really. Whereas the new usage of "literally" does not always mean literally.

     

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  46.  
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    Anonymous, Aug 30th, 2013 @ 1:05pm

    Re: Dictionaries should not follow society's usage

    Woulda, coulda, shoulda...

     

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  47.  
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    Anonymous, Aug 30th, 2013 @ 1:08pm

    How is it that C-O-L-O-N-E-L is pronounced "kernel"? Or that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing? Or that "fat chance" is the same as "slim chance"?

     

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