December 22, 2014
Which meaning do you mean?
For the Herald
A browser extension that replaces ‘literally’ with ‘figuratively’
If you’re a cool-headed (1), fair-minded (2), forward-thinking descriptivist (*), it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.
If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky (3) language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the hell out of you every time.
We pedants are waging a losing battle (4), of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.
Fortunately, Yahoo Tech’s Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling (5) inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.
It doesn’t work in every instance — tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches (6) when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:
— The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively on Fire
— 10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For
— Momentum Is Figuratively the Next Starting Pitcher for LSU
Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)
But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ (*) logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally — I mean figuratively!
If you’re signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto’s Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like “will blow your mind” and “you won’t believe.”
By Will Oremus, Slate.
Waging the language wars (*)
There’s been a war going on since the beginning of times, an endless world war that will probably never end, and we are all soldiers in it!
On one side of the ring are the prescriptivists. For prescriptivists, language should be guided by clear, tidy, elegant rules. For them, the world would be a perfect place if everybody read the grammar manuals and followed the rules all day, every day.
Descriptivists are their natural enemies. For them, language is a free thing that people create and negotiate all the time, and the rules are just conventions that we keep changing every time we open our mouths. They celebrate variation, and think that as long as people understand each other nothing is “right” or wrong.”
Who’ll win? Well, they both make valid points, so a blend of the two extremes is probably the best. Still, when you are learning a new language you need to incorporate certain rules, so it helps to be more of a prescriptivist... but later on you can relax a bit and enjoy variety!
A cool-headed person is someone who is not easily worried or excited – who keeps their head cool (a little cold, in its original meaning).
To be fair is to be just and balanced, without favouring one side of the argument over the other when making a decision. A fair-minded person is impartial when they judge or look at things.
A cranky person has a bad temper, and gets angry or irritated very easily.
(4) To wage
This is a strange word. As a verb, it means to start and continue a battle or fight, so you wage a losing battle when you defend a position that you know has no chance of winning. The strange thing is that, when used as a noun, “wage” means the money you get from work at the end of each month (e.g., minimum wage, living wage).
Something is galling when it is so unfair or wrong that it makes you angry. The history of this word is fascinating: in the Middle Ages, doctors thought an excess of “yellow gall” or “choler” in the body was the reason for an angry temper. This “theory of humours” is the source of adjectives like “galling” and “choleric”.
(6) In stitches
If something has/puts you in stitches, it makes you laugh a lot. This is a favourite expression of Herald reviewer Alfredo Cernadas, so next time you read one of his theatre reviews of comedies keep your eyes open and you will probably spot it!