Do You Feel Lucky?

(and feel free to comment! My older posts are certainly no less relevant to the burning concerns of the day.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Me, Defender of Language: That Would Be I

I have hard words, here, for certain honorable and good-hearted, right-thinking individuals, but I cannot apologize any more than I can dissemble. My words here are directed at those who decry what they call a travesty, a sin of degeneracy, an attack on the purity of language: the acceptance of "literally" when used in a figurative way.

There is no legitimate reason to object to this use of "literally."

It is nothing more than an exaggeration for dramatic effect - albeit, one that has largely passed into idiom. Haven't you people heard of hyperbole? "Literally" for "figuratively" is a clear instance.

I love to spring that one on a stickler! But I do it with a heavy heart, because my sympathies in many ways lie with such sticklers.

The worst is, it's perfectly true. Hyperbole is hyperbole. It's a rhetorical device. The word "figurative" may be an antonym of the word "literal" when considering their denotative values, but we know that figurative speech does not create a conflict or difficulty, here. When you speak figuratively, typically you say something that "ain't so." Generally, it's very clear that it ain't so. It doesn't matter that it ain't so.

The fact that it ain't so is not beside the point, it is the point. The exaggeration of "literally" for "figuratively" is in no way worse than the exaggeration of "absolutely" used in a case that is not definite, comprehensive, absolute. This perfectly legitimate rhetorical use. You use hyperbole to convey your excess of feeling in the matter.

Oh, you can call me absolutely wrong, here. But you know full well that if you do - you're literally an ass.


Mel said...


dogimo said...

Well yeah, but teachers are always allowed to do that! They don't even look stupid doing it. A teacher is allowed to make rules that rest on no authority but his or her own - what other authority can there be, beyond the temporary authority of the classroom? The living English language recognizes no authority over it. It is governed from below.

So yeah, a teacher governing by rules is expected and even necessary. An adult trying to do that - to correct another adult! As if "correct" has force! That's childish. Worse: their attempt shows nothing they learned about what makes language work and what makes it weak. Did they really learn nothing but rules by rote? And their take on the lesson: we don't break these because we were scolded in school, I mean, because correctness is right! It just is! And correctness and has to be served.

No, function and utility are what must be served. Clarity. Meaning. The rules that serve the purpose, I suppose I observe them - but I would have anyway, I didn't need the rule! Function and utility are themselves observable, without reference to rules. Those rules never governed or led the language. They just followed after it, describing and analyzing how the speech people came up with works so well to convey their meanings.

In the classroom, of course, it is well that those strengths and pitfalls of language are coded in rules. It's a good way to teach a child.

dogimo said...

You know what, I've heard a lot of folks reference rules of whatever kind - grammatical, musical - and then when the other person shoots back Beethoven, Joyce, whoever - it's a bit of a difficulty for the corrector. Well of course it is.

Sometimes the corrector puts this one out there: "You need to know the rules to know when and where to break them." Or they might even claim that genius is exempt - that a person needs to be a genius in order to earn the right to break the rules at will and where they see the need.

It's plain silly. You don't need to be a genius, you just need to understand what the rule describes. Chances are, the rule wasn't put in place to stop something that people were doing, something that screwed up their attempt! Chances are the rule was written to describe something that was already being done.

If you know what the rule is about, is "for," then it's easy to see every case where it's not relevant. A snap! Nobody needs to be a genius for that one.

dogimo said...

I read the article, and I'm a bit disappointed if that was the extent of her instruction. Say another word instead? Say fantastic or wonderful instead?

Why not teach a kid what awe is? Explain to them the nature of the fantastic! Teach them what wonder is. Amaze them with the differences.

Amazement is not wonder, and it is not awe. Hard to believe, but incredible is not fantastic. If we want to broaden our kids' vocabularies, we should teach them what words mean. Oh sure, we can leave them to tease out the differences for themselves, over a lifetime of reading great writers and having shades and connotations soak in. But why not give them a clearer start?

Amaze them. Amaze them with the brilliant and scintillating differences between so many words and concepts that are called synonymous by lazy and ignorant minds.

Mel said...

Mel’s memories of language #1

My grade 9/10 English teacher left to live in England at the end of my grade ten year (1993). I wrote to her and for reasons that remain a mystery to me I said to her that “things are the same at school, your leaving has had no impact”. I can assure you I really liked Ms Francis so I was not trying to be rude, I can only presume I was acting a surly teenager being all “school sux”. Anyway, Ms Francis wrote back to say that it may be true her leaving had no impact but that she must have had an impact on me as I used “your leaving” instead of “you leaving”. I remember feeling quite chuffed. It was one my earliest indications that perhaps I had a natural inclination for the written form (the realisation that I needed to not come across as such a smartass would come much later)

Mel’s memories of language #2

Back in primary school, from about grade 5-7 (so, ages 10-12ish) my friends and I, if wanting to say something was great or awesome or cool etc, would say it was “skill” as in “that’s so skill!” Years later as an adult I asked friends of my own age if they too had used “skill” in such a manner as kids. No one had. It was exclusive to just my school, perhaps even my group of friends. I remember this making me feel amazed at the fluidity and functionality of language.

Mel’s memories of language #3

When my niece was, say, 3 or 4, if she couldn’t do something physically, she would say she didn’t have the “strongth”. It’s still a word we use today in my family.

Mel’s memories of language #4

Recent conversation with me dad

My old man: “Still’ is a funny word”
Me: “What do you mean?”
My old man: “Well, its two meanings are incongruent”
Me: “No they’re not, ‘still’ means ‘not moving’ or ‘unchanged’”
My old man: “Well, what if something is ‘still moving’
Me: ”…”

Mel’s memories of language #5

*Watching Sia’s “Elastic Heart” video*

My old man: “Is she singing in a different language?”
Me: “No, she’s from Adelaide”
My old man: “I can’t understand a word she’s saying”