How to Deal With Definition Creep

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Reader Comments (56)


January 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterfirst comment

I'm not sure if it is because I'm not a native English speaker, but I don't see any figurative meaning of "the whole company" or "opposites", so adding "literally" to those sentences doesn't change their meaning to me.

On the third panel, is Scott saying that the sentence "You are literally behind the times" makes sense? For me, it would mean that you are physically behind a New York Times newspaper or something like that. Of course, it is a perfectly valid sentence grammatically, but I can't think of any situation where it would make sense.

I must say, of all the comics that I read, Basic Instructions is the one that demands the most of my language skills, and I love that!

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermillani

Oh dear. This isn't a good example. Even if he's wrong, boss guy could genuinely have meant he thought he was literally the only smart person in his whole company. It depends on how he defines smart, and how egotistical he is.
Now if he said he was literally going to cough up a lung, that's cut and dried.
And it gets worse. You can't say someone is literally behind the times. That would mean you were saying someone is actually standing behind the times. That is a phrase where you could tack on figuratively, although it would be pretty redundant.
Literally: it means something actually is exactly the way you say, really and truly.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbriligg

You really can't use "figuratively" as a gloss (interchangeable synonym) for when people misuse "literally." The word they actually mean is "veritably," although this word is so seldom used that it tends to sound pretentious when used properly. "Virtually" is at least closer than "figuratively" to what the "literally" misusers have in mind.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSock Puppet

Who's the definition creep now?

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbriligg

There's definition creep, word distortion, such as changing a noun into a verb to sound like an expert, as heard in olympic commentary: "she might have a chance to medal"
(No, she might have a chance to *win* a medal, and last I knew, "win" wasn't a bad word)
and there's the buzzword phenomenon. "It's about" or "I'm all about" etc. has come to be used so broadly that it has little meaning.
"My" gets stuck into titles where it's grammatically questionable (if they call the shop "My Cake", does that mean it's theirs, or that it could be mine?) but it adds even less information than "it's about", which can sometimes mean "focus on".
Then there's "pop"
It is used to mean something good, but it doesn't mean "popular". Also doesn't mean anything like popping a bubble, stopping by for a short visit, or anything else I can recognise, but people I used to respect are saying it.
I wish my parents hadn't taught me to care about the language.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDee

I literally exploded in laughter reading this comic :)

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNH

Mullet Boss's initial claim is almost certainly hyperbole, and hyperbole is a form of figure of speech. So Mullet Boss did probably mean what he said figuratively. However, the definition that he gave for "literally", "In effect: virtually" is the actual second definition listed in the online Merriam Webster dictionary.

So neither of you are technically wrong because Mullet Boss's initial claim paradoxically makes sense with both the terms "literally" and "figuratively."

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGregory Bogosian

Everything went to hell with Webster's 3rd edition.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterResuna

The problem with accepting the misuse of literally is that it literally makes the word meaningless.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersav

One of the more amusing conversations I have had recently:

"He literally punched his eyes out of his head!"
"Yeah, literally!"
"He literally punched his eyes out of his head?"
"Yeah, literally!"
"So his eyes were actually out of his head?"
"Well, not literally..."


January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSR

Dictionaries have given up, and the curators responsible for this must pay. It's unacceptable that we now have "alright" in the dictionary. It was considered a spelling error for decades until the Internet came along and everyone just threw in the towel. I'm amazed they haven't caved on "alot" and "aswell". When I become a supervillain, this crap will be undone.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLummox JR

You kind of have it wrong. The boss does mean "Literally" in the first panel. "I am the smartest person in the whole company" is not a figure of speech, its a literal statement. And from what we know about him, he doesn't intend hyperbole, a blue whale is literally the biggest whale there is. That's a factual statement, not a figure of speech. Even if the statement is wrong, it's still meant literally.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTim Shepard

Don't even get me started on the abuse of "decimate." Goddammit, the math is right in the fucking word!

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJudas Peckerwood

What? No, that can't be true.

*looks up "literally"*



January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrendan

American spelling went to hell with Noah Webster's first dictionary. Someone who could actually spell ought to have clipped him around the ears.

I'm not surprised that it would have such a stupid meaning listed for "literally".

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

<Trying to erase image of a literally cut and dried lung being coughed up>

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjolous

I read that title as "How to Deal with a Definition Creep." I presumed Scott was a creep that needed to be put in his place while reading it the first time through.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermarr

I suspect the evolution of language is driven by people who don't read dictionaries.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Rodgers

Literally. As in, "the sort of thing you might read in literature", that is, mostly stuff someone has made up, any resemblance to actual persons, events or grammatical constructions is purely coincidental...

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAA

My dictionary's usage note says that this has been happening literally since the early 20th century, which I expect is literally true. Literally no longer literally means literally. I don't propose to stand for this, and my idea is to tell anyone who perpetrates it that the correct word is "literately". Obviously this collides with another word, but this time we can probably tell. Who's with me?

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Carnegie

I just think that pedantry about language use is rich coming from an American. This strip was just not funny. Very rare.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClive

"You really can't use "figuratively" as a gloss (interchangeable synonym) for when people misuse "literally.""

You can use any word in any context, right or wrong. All you need to do is play the "Humpty Dumpty defence" and you're golden.

Then again if you're going to use words interchangeably with words that don't mean the same thing, then I reserve the right to misunderstand you every time I wish by asserting that you meant another word, even if you were literally exact in your usage and I wrong.

After all, if you mean a different word and don't have to say what definition of that word you literally mean, then there's nothing that stops me using the same rules for any of your conversation.

But I'm guessing that if I do that, you'll complain that I'm using the wrong definition of a word.

And the hypocrisy will never even touch the sides.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWow

Actually it's literally actually...
see my other favorite strip today:

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMitchH

Literally. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterclueless noob

Language: not a tool whose rules can safely be entrusted to amateurs. That way lies the descent into barbarism.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkhereva

Definition creep similar to Scope creep or Mission creep - the slow change over time, not "a definition creep."

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMikey

On a side note, the copyright still says 2013....

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermohrorless

IMHO, Webster lost the right to define words when they decided literally could mean figuratively just because people are too stupid to know the difference.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRandall Hall

Reminds me of the superhero Captain Literally:

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermisterpold

I literally can't recall ever seeing this many responses to a single BI comic.

Scott, if you want to generate traffic, clearly grammar-related comics is the answer.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterZoltan

The boss says "I am the only smart person in this company". And I think that what follows rules out a possible excuse that he might have been talking about how he dresses. Even though that's not so much an excuse as a necessity.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Carnegie

My best screed on "literally," sent to the folks who do Lexicon Valley last year.


I am not a prescriptivist. I LOVE language shifts. I love the way that evolving language reveals more about the speaker, the time and can serve as generational makers. Poetry and metaphor is much more difficult if the language mavens, scolds and sticks in the mud had their way.

But "literally" is different

And I think that Mike's prepared discussion of the word misses the point.

First, let me point out that the fact that a great author has used "literally" to mean "figuratively" or as an intensifier is an incredibly sloppy refutation, one without Mike's usual insight and care.

You see, the context of the usage is critical. You both know quite when Shakespeare wrote "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," he was not endorsing the idea himself. Rather, he was putting the words into the mouth a particular character, who had particular motives and a particular…I guess "character" would be the word.

So, if Fitzgerald included a misuse of the word in Gatsy, that literally proves nothing. All it does is show that Fitzgerald painted a character (Nick) who might misuse the word.

Unless the words come from an omniscient and objective narrator, it is quite a mistake to cite an author's usage as an endorsement of its acceptability.

(Furthermore, this alleged misuse might not be off. Gatsby did not literally glow with light, but he did radiate something. So, he glowed with well-being. Perhaps a misuse, but perhaps not.)

Second, citing old and older misuse does not make the misuse any more acceptable. All it does is show that it is not a new misuse.

This only works as an argument if the basis for the objection is that it is new. Only if the maven/scold is arguing against changes -- particularly recent changes --- or somehow claiming that it did not formerly have that use is the age of the allegedly objectionable use a relevant retort.

And that a is not the case here.

Third, why is "literally" different? What is it about this particular word, and this particular misuse that makes a descriptivist like like me object to its metaphorical use?

Well, language exists to communicate with precision and to communicate with metaphor (and various shades in between). There is a time and place for each extreme, of course. Sometimes we want (or need) clarity and sometimes we do not.

But language exists to communicate.

Misuse of "literally" undermines that communication. It makes it far more difficult too communicate with precision because it it literally destroys one of the most significant markers of the intent of precision. It's misuse is sloppy because it is so preoccupied with the immediate communication that it is heedless to the communication it renders difficult or impossible in the future.

Fourth, Mike, you example is just wrong. You essentially said that it is NOT ok to use "literally" with impossible hyperbole but IS acceptable to use it with metaphor. But you are wrong.

Using "literally" with the impossible hyperbole is just an obvious intensifier -- though, clearly unnecessary. Because the hyperbole is impossible (e.g., a million kittens), the sentence will not be misunderstood for use of the word literally. But when used with apparently figurative language or a metaphor that COULD actually be meant literally, it is incredibly problematic. If it can be used as an intensifier in that circumstance, then there is no way to mark the likely-figuratuve language as literal language.

"Literally" is unlike other words because misuse of it makes other expression more difficult. "Literally" is unlike other words because misuse of it favors one end of the precise-poetic continuum that it undermines our ability to communicate the other.

And, unfortunately, while there are a few decently useful synonyms for "figurative," (e.g., metaphorical, symbolic), there are no similarly useful synonyms for "literally" (short of "non-figuratively"). So, there's that.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterceolaf

Blasphemy, Joshua! Thou shalt speak no ill of St. Webster! Americans fixed English (granted, not all the way) thanks to him. It's not his fault that some later generation is bent on blowing up the language entirely and some folks who run a dictionary in his name are spineless cretins.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLummox JR

Wow. Scott: 1, Boss: 3. Good match, though.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrowlord

When I saw this for some reason I thought that "definition creep" was the boss's nickname rather than the thing that was happening.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterstephen

For what it's worth, I think people should use "absolutely" or "totally" rather than the non-literal "literally". "You are absolutely driving me up a wall!" sounds like something people might actually say, while "You are figuratively driving me up a wall!" just sounds dumb.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkirk

To ceolaf: In part of your post, it seems you were also too preoccupied with your immediate communication, since you wrote, 'Misuse of "literally" undermines that communication. It makes it far more difficult too communicate with precision because it it literally destroys one of the most significant markers of the intent of precision. It's misuse is sloppy because it is so preoccupied with the immediate communication that it is heedless to the communication it renders difficult or impossible in the future. … Fourth, Mike, you example is just wrong.'
Ceolaf, your grammar is also sloppy, as noted in these errors you made. To communicate with precision, you should not have written, "Too Communicate with precision". You also misused your words when you wrote, "It's misuse". As well, your example was just wrong when you wrote, "you example is just wrong."

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjuneetta

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore."

Also: It's a perfectly cromulent word, literally.

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNot James Nicoll

"On a side note, the copyright still says 2013...."

You're right! It's literally still 2013!

January 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKierkegaard
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