The Word "Literally": Overused. Be Aware. September 10, 2018 8:04 PM   Subscribe

That's it. It's a linguistic tick that's infecting people. Awareness is key. Discuss. (Or not).
posted by agregoli to Etiquette/Policy at 8:04 PM (175 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite



I'm literally not concerned about this.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:13 PM on September 10 [30 favorites]


Let your crankiness flow
posted by thelonius at 8:14 PM on September 10


How is this MetaFilter related? People overuse literally literally everywhere on the Internet. Literally.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:33 PM on September 10 [9 favorites]


It's a linguistic tick that's infecting people.

Linguistic ticks also carry rhyme disease.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 8:42 PM on September 10 [116 favorites]


It's a linguistic tick that's infecting people

Like, in the Pontypool literal sense?
posted by naju at 9:33 PM on September 10 [9 favorites]


I blame Chris Traeger.
posted by axiom at 9:43 PM on September 10 [7 favorites]


I could literally care less.
posted by muddgirl at 10:00 PM on September 10 [9 favorites]


I'm pretty OK with it.
posted by rhizome at 10:20 PM on September 10


Linguistic ticks also carry rhyme disease.

Address appropriately and check your pentameters.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:47 PM on September 10 [5 favorites]


Let your crankiness flow

the crank extends life

the crank expands consciousness

the crank is vital to space travel
posted by poffin boffin at 10:57 PM on September 10 [10 favorites]


Comics taken literally: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Interesting that searching GoComics for newspaper comics containing the word "literally" almost totally brought up ones over 10 years old.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:13 PM on September 10 [1 favorite]


I never in my life hated a word until the newly popular “tremendously.”

“Literally” all you want as far as I’m concerned.
posted by moira at 11:45 PM on September 10


Note: everyone needs a metaphorical hug.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 12:27 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I have all the risk factors for language peeving, because I was always bookish and I’m certainly pedantic enough about other things, so it's a genuine relief to me that I never developed much irritation at other people’s use of language. I don’t know why; reading Steven Pinker at an impressionable age, maybe? But the idea that it would annoy me every time I heard people use casual, informal speech… *shudders*

God knows there are enough other stressy things in the world.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:31 AM on September 11 [8 favorites]


Do you mean literally literally, or figuratively literally?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:48 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I literally want somebody to do literallyn literally like Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:02 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I TOTALLY agree with this MetaTalk Post, which addresses one of the most important issues facing MetaFilter today.

As a notorious generator of garbage in all its manifestations - physical, conceptual, and spiritual - I have spent the majority of my existence polluting the world, and particularly this site, with my cast-off waste products. I mean - this very comment is proof that I am willing to throw my garbage thoughts right into the very eyeballs of ANYONE who dares read a MetaTalk thread!

And yet, for all my horrible littering, I am yet to receive a SINGLE vote #1, for the position of Chief Pollution Orifice of MeFi. Obviously you people are NOT allies of littering, so calling anyone here a "Litter-ally" would be WRONG. I demand therefore that you STOP calling yourselves litter-allies, and just put me out front with the recycling. No seriously - I think the garbage truck is coming, and I'm sick of living in this trash can.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:17 AM on September 11 [38 favorites]


I would, like, LITERALLY vote for you, quid...? (How do you do a vocal fry in text)
posted by caution live frogs at 4:19 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I know the latest prescription is to be descriptivist, but I would describe myself as prescriptivist in cases like this. Literally used to be more useful. Now it means literally or it means emphatically but not literally, which takes the oomph out of the original meaning without adding much to the language in exchange. But I don't literally prescribe anything. I just have an opinion, and opinions are literally a dime a dozen.
posted by pracowity at 4:38 AM on September 11


Well, actually...
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:46 AM on September 11


I'm firmly of the opinion that "literally" pedants are inconsistent unless they also object to people using newfangled 16th century innovations like saying "very" or "really" when they clearly don't mean something is "true" (from the Latin verus) or "real" and really should be using the perfectly good Middle English word "sore"(cognate to German zehr) as a generic intensifier.

Our dear English language has been degrading itself into meaninglessness for quite a long time now. I'm sure that we will all become completely unable to understand each other any minute now.
posted by firechicago at 4:53 AM on September 11 [27 favorites]


You say prescriptivist, I say descriptivist
Let's call the whole thing off
posted by nubs at 5:03 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah! I remember that Wiliam Safire column from 1984 too!

Seriously, people have been complaining about this literally my entire life. And I'm almost 50. On the scale of things worth worrying about, this doesn't move the needle.

I know the latest prescription is to be descriptivist, but I would describe myself as prescriptivist in cases like this.

The thing about this dichotomy is that it's not like one's always right and one's always wrong - they're theoretical positions, and they are entirely contextual. After all, it's not like the scholars who write journal papers on where prescriptivist positions fail write them in free-form colloquial language. There are places to be prescriptivist. My line on that is "is this thing expected to be an edited product?" I am a very firm copyeditor, and I also let all my interns/fellows/junior staff know that you should not be fucking around with your formal job emails, cover letters, and CV. I expect media outlets that make money on their content to present well. But I don't bother insisting that people using language in everyday life like people using language in everyday life need to follow the current version of the rules.

Now let's talk about "You're perfect!" - the new answer to "I'm sorry."
posted by Miko at 5:14 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


What's driving me nuts is "navigate" when it's about a life event or a problem. And it's not wrong, and often it's probably the best word. But it's sort of a buzz word and maybe a buzz concept I think?
posted by BibiRose at 5:23 AM on September 11


Miko, that response hasn't made it to my circles yet, and in Canada that has to be a good thing, or something terrible and recursive will happen:

A: I'm sorry

B: You're perfect

A: Oh, no, thank you but sorry, no

B: Yeah, no, sorry, you ARE perfect

and so on.
posted by wellred at 5:23 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I guess I'm an asshole. Sorry.
posted by agregoli at 5:34 AM on September 11


It's been a long, long while since I've seen a metatalk post as quixotic as this one.
posted by Ipsifendus at 5:43 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I could literally care less.

Me too. A whole lot less.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:49 AM on September 11


I'm with you on this, agregoli, but I don't think we're going to get much traction here. Not while Trump is in office, anyway.
posted by bryon at 5:56 AM on September 11


I completely agree that using literally to mean, you know, NOT literally is a travesty, but words change and are made up all the time. So I try not to get mad about it, especially as I fight to get people to use the singular they, and not use certain yucky words, and suchlike.
posted by wellred at 6:00 AM on September 11


I surely begs the question what people use when they actually mean literally.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:33 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


unless they also object to people using newfangled 16th century innovations like saying "very" or "really" when they clearly don't mean something is "true"

Personally I'm thrilled we are finally addressing that scourge of modern English language, who has already all but ruined it for everyone with his non-16th-century word usages, including this terrible recent development of "literally" to mean "figuratively": Charles Dickens
posted by solotoro at 6:47 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I surely begs the question what people use when they actually mean literally.

I don't mis-use literally because I am not a heathen. However, this means you can't use literally to mean literally anymore because people might not realize you mean literally. So I say "for reals."
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:50 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


This is literally so much less annoying than the kids that call records "vinyls."
posted by thivaia at 6:58 AM on September 11


They're otter be a rhule.
posted by sammyo at 7:14 AM on September 11


Our use of the language designs the language. What kind of language do you want to design? "Very" and "really" are really very nice features. But the figurative "literally" detracts from the language, because it introduces an ambiguity precisely at the moment where a literal "literal" user would like there to be none. I recommend that English remove it before the next major version release.
posted by Jpfed at 7:23 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I surely begs the question what people use when they actually mean literally.

OMG. you didn't that on purpose, didn't you?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:27 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I agree OP. It's rilly eroding our language, in a littoral sense.
posted by fleacircus at 7:36 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Vikings don't care what you think.

Meanwhile, I'd happily hear all the "literally" in the world to never hear "impactful" again.
posted by TwoStride at 8:08 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I guess I'm an asshole. Sorry.

Not at all - you just gotta know that we're literally going to tee off on this Meta as a place for jokes and riffs.

I have my own little pet peeves with how certain words are used compared to what they (used to) mean, but I only figuratively think about decimating things these days.
posted by nubs at 8:18 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Literally banned.
posted by moonbird at 8:20 AM on September 11


This is literally just chatfilter
posted by IjonTichy at 8:21 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I like literally use literally in like every sentence, you know?
posted by Fukiyama at 8:36 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


My neighbor says 'literarilly'. Literally.
posted by Splunge at 8:42 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


This issue isn't very unique to Metafilter, really.
posted by cjelli at 8:48 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


There is litter in my neighbor's ally.
posted by Namlit at 8:48 AM on September 11


A Story About DOT, Jr. When He Was Four Years Old

"OWWW! The door is crushing me! Ow! Dad!"
"The door is crushing you?"
"Well, not literally. It's just pushing on me in a way that is really uncomfortable. I'm fine, really."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:50 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


and really should be using the perfectly good Middle English word "sore"(cognate to German zehr) as a generic intensifier.

This explains "sore" as an intensifier in some contexts I had misunderstood! I am sorely thankful you brought this up.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:14 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


agregoli: "I guess I'm an asshole. Sorry."

Not *literally*, no....

(not even figuratively, actually)
posted by Chrysostom at 9:16 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Oh my god I hate it so so so much. Yes, I am a language snob. Yes, I am a prescriptivist.

Don't even get me fucking started on the new thing that "lead" is now used as the past tense of "to lead." Or that "plead" is used as the past tense of "to plead."

I know, it's a losing battle. Thank you for letting me share, though.
posted by holborne at 9:26 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


But the figurative "literally" detracts from the language, because it introduces an ambiguity precisely at the moment where a literal "literal" user would like there to be none.

I am and will remain entirely unmoved by this point until you can cite actual real-world examples of ambiguity, because I'm pretty sure you just mean it introduces something that annoys you, not that you've ever actually been unsure if when a person described their head as "literally exploding" or some such you were unsure what meaning of the word "literally" they were invoking.
posted by solotoro at 9:31 AM on September 11


That was too punchy, I apologize, I'm sick and grumpy.

What I should have said is that while there probably are some cases of ambiguity, I feel like it's those cases are lots less frequent than those where there is none.
posted by solotoro at 9:37 AM on September 11


I mean, I guess the mutation of the meaning of "decimate" leaves us without a word that specifically means, "reduced by ten percent" and yet we seem to get by.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:48 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


As Metafilter is entirely made of written words, everything expressed here is literal. Literally.
posted by rodlymight at 9:58 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I mean, I guess the mutation of the meaning of "decimate" leaves us without a word that specifically means, "reduced by ten percent" and yet we seem to get by.

I made it through a company-wide ten percent reduction in force, which meant I got to say "literally decimated" to describe it forever after. Which was pretty great.

Though I usually immediately defined "decimated" properly afterward, so that it would be obvious I was using "literally" more or less correctly. (They didn't kill anybody, after all.)
posted by asperity at 10:26 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Dear America...
posted by phunniemee at 10:28 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I could literally care less.

Like "I could care less" (Hey, Hey, Hey!)
That means you DO care
At least a little

And I thought that you'd gotten it through your skull
About what's figurative and what's literal
Oh, but just now, you said
You "literally couldn't get out of bed"
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head
posted by Melismata at 11:01 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I literally could get out of bed!
posted by muddgirl at 11:12 AM on September 11


That's it. It's a linguistic tick that's infecting people

Literally?
posted by clavdivs at 11:20 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Right, I am done with prescriptivist language policing and will henceforth express my thoughts entirely through the medium of interpretive dance.
posted by briank at 11:33 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


That's it. It's a linguistic tick that's infecting people

Literally?


Let's ask Viking Ralph.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:35 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


words are literally unnecessary

they can only do harm
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:17 PM on September 11 [8 favorites]


This word and the constant repetition thereof is why I had to stop listening to How Did This Get Made?

Manzoukis is great in The Good Place as Derek, but my goodness was his habit of inserting "literally" in every sentence annoying af.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:40 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I think it literally is literally overused. Literally, it is used more than literally anything else - as this graph shows.
posted by Garm at 12:46 PM on September 11


Unfortunately, the "literally" ship has sailed. So, throw your efforts toward a battle that can still be won, e. g., "gifted", as in, "I was gifted [whatever]" instead of "I was given [whatever]".

(Why do people do this?)
posted by she's not there at 1:25 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


There’s some nuance there. Given could be low key, but gifted suggests an element of ceremony.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:32 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


So, throw your efforts toward a battle that can still be won

so are you tasking us with this?
posted by thelonius at 1:33 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, the "literally" ship has sailed. So, throw your efforts toward a battle that can still be won, e. g., "gifted", as in, "I was gifted [whatever]" instead of "I was given [whatever]".

(Why do people do this?)


Here in the States, you hear a lot of vacuous pop theology spill over into conversational speech. “Gifted” has that whiff about it: the peculiar, faintly sulfurous scent that con-men emit.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 1:33 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I blame trump, but anytime someone says something like "If you look at what's happening/the data/the numbers/etc" I get immediately circumspect.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:42 PM on September 11


Is this a thread from 2013?

Joking aside, kind of surprised there isn’t more enthusiasm on Metafilter for descriptive linguistics.
posted by nightrecordings at 1:58 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


The main post doesn't directly state that "literally" shouldn't be used as an intensifier. It simply suggests that it's an overused intensifier.
posted by kewb at 2:41 PM on September 11


If we took this seriously, it would deprive me of a favorite gag around my house: 'I literally-figuratively-literally mean [x]' versus 'I literally-literally mean [x].'
posted by mordax at 2:58 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Now let's talk about "You're perfect!" - the new answer to "I'm sorry."

No, let's talk about "No problem" instead of "You're welcome" I'M LOOKING AT YOU EVERY SERVER CURRENTLY WORKING IN A CASUAL DINING ESTABLISHMENT.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:15 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


WHILE WE'RE AT IT. "Have a good one". STOP WITH THAT.
posted by thelonius at 3:16 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


ALSO. "thing-that-got-repeated Electric Boogaloo 2". You should do standup! Because that is SO HILARIOUS EVERY TIME.
posted by thelonius at 3:19 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


How about when people answer “absolutely” (especially when discussing office/business process crap) when a simple “yes” or “agreed” would suffice and leaves room for nuance?
posted by Burhanistan at 3:28 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


>>: So, throw your efforts toward a battle that can still be won

> so are you tasking us with this?


That seems like a big ask.
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:29 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


It's a lost cause, man. David Cross did a bit about this in 2002. Countless articles and Takes have been written about this.

It's just not gonna happen.
posted by East14thTaco at 3:30 PM on September 11


How about when people answer “absolutely” (especially when discussing office/business process crap) when a simple “yes” or “agreed” would suffice and leaves room for nuance?

Imagine you just snagged tickets to an amazing concert and your friend really loved the band. You call them and you ask if they'd like to come with you and they say either "yes" or "absolutely." Which one of those communicates more enthusiasm?
posted by East14thTaco at 3:35 PM on September 11


Sure, but not when nodding in agreement to someone making a barely salient point about some TPS reports.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:39 PM on September 11


How about when people answer “absolutely” (especially when discussing office/business process crap) when a simple “yes” or “agreed” would suffice and leaves room for nuance?

Maybe you’re just surrounded by Hegelians.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 3:44 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


But the figurative "literally" detracts from the language, because it introduces an ambiguity precisely at the moment where a literal "literal" user would like there to be none.

I don't think it does! Like, let me bracket that by noting that there is shit I will sometimes go to bat for with very similar arguments because it's my personal fixation (DOUBLE SPACES AFTER SENTENCE-TERMINAL PUNCTUATION ENCODES STRUCTURAL INFORMATION THAT UNIVERSAL SINGLE-SPACING ERASES THEREBY CREATING AMBIGUITY), but in practice people are much less likely to let language drift in contexts where the drift will create practical ambiguity than they are in contexts where there are no such stakes. Because people like to be understood! They like to know that what they're saying will get across clearly.

So when folks use literally to convey a generic intensifying sentiment rather than to convey canonical "literalness", they're generally doing so in contexts where it doesn't matter. Either because the meaning will still be clear, or the stakes for ambiguity are very low, or both.

So you'll see e.g. "I literally died!" from someone telling a personal anecdote, and the same person when making a police report won't say that. Context drives language use, and we are constantly, unthinkingly adapting both our word choices and our parsing of other people's speech according to context.

Can an ambiguous, high-stakes communication scenario involving literally be proposed? Sure! Do they ever arise in practice? Maybe, every once in a while! Is it a practical problem basically like ever, though? No! It's a peeve. It's an annoying-to-some polysemy for a common word. Literally is far from the only word that morphs in its meaning when used emphatically in informal conversation; I'd love to bend a working linguist's ear on the subject of a potential whole class of intensifiers that have that specific quality (meaning shifting/morphing in the specific context of conversational emphasis) in common even while basically being unrelated in meaning.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:52 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


To restate that more concisely:

If someone says "literally" in a way you can tell defies the strict "literalness" meaning of the word, they haven't created ambiguity. You understood them! You may disagree with their usage, but you understand their meaning.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:04 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]


Totally.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:44 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


ALSO. "thing-that-got-repeated Electric Boogaloo 2". You should do standup! Because that is SO HILARIOUS EVERY TIME.

C'mon, now, you're doing that wrong. The numeral always goes before "Electric Boogaloo". As in Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

It will never not be funny, but it must be done correctly. As long as we're prescriptiving it up in here.
posted by asperity at 4:47 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


yes I realized that later but I really can't be arsed
posted by thelonius at 5:04 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Mavis Beacon Teaches Typin’ 2:
Selectric Boogaloo
posted by Barack Spinoza at 5:08 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]


2 Electric 2 Boogaloo
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:11 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


If someone says "literally" in a way you can tell defies the strict "literalness" meaning of the word, they haven't created ambiguity. You understood them! You may disagree with their usage, but you understand their meaning.

I literally agree with this. Which either means that I agree with this or that the word literally no longer means anything. Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo, buffalo. Fake news.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:43 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


2 Electrics 1 Boogaloo
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:10 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


---
posted by Fupped Duck at 6:11 PM on September 11


In these times, this is virtually the least of my problems.
posted by Fupped Duck at 6:12 PM on September 11


cortex: "(DOUBLE SPACES AFTER SENTENCE-TERMINAL PUNCTUATION ENCODES STRUCTURAL INFORMATION THAT UNIVERSAL SINGLE-SPACING ERASES THEREBY CREATING AMBIGUITY)"

He's right, you know.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:41 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


1 electric = 1 boogaloo
posted by rhizome at 6:42 PM on September 11


There is ambiguity sometimes:

"I Literally shit my pants when I heard that" ... Like i assume they wouldn't be telling me the story if they literally shit their pants.. but it does make me not 100% sure they DIDN't shit their pants.
posted by some loser at 7:31 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Prescriptivist Boogaloo 2
posted by nubs at 7:31 PM on September 11


"I Literally shit my pants when I heard that"

The funny thing about that is the imprecise usage is not in "literally," but in substituting "shit my pants" for "was surprised."
posted by rhizome at 7:54 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Like i assume they wouldn't be telling me the story if they literally shit their pants.. but it does make me not 100% sure they DIDN't shit their pants.

Not even getting into the usage of 'like' as a modifier in our language patterns but, to the point, that's their problem that they don't know that by adding 'literally' to their pants that were shat situation description it means they actually will be perceived as having had feces in their britches not just having a good chuckle or jump scare. That's on them, not your take on their phrasing nor on the word that was, potentially, used in a sloppy fashion by JohnDoeShittyPants.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:56 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


We live in dark times, fraught with anti-intellectualism and Orwellian levels of double-speak and no, it's too easy to pretend that everyone just understands what everyone else means when that's so obviously untrue, and sadly, these days, often exactly the opposite of the point.

Is "literally" a hill worth dying on? Most likely not. But I find many of the arguments here to be troubling. "Prescriptivism!" isn't really a compelling argument against attempts to teach and model precision in communication. Does usage evolve? Of course. But that isn't actually an argument in favor of jettisoning any given specific usage just because misuse is becoming common.

Why do I care? Partly because I'm weary of the subcontext that education equals elitism. Partly because I'm alarmed at how effective the far right has been with weaponizing the recontextualization of language as a way of obfuscation disguised as communication. Partly because I write for a living, and - though I admittedly love words in a somewhat unhealthy and almost anthropomorphic way - I honestly believe that language matters, and informs how we think in deep and complicated ways.

Complex ideas are often best described with precise, complex language. Which requires that we value and teach usage that can support precision and complexity.

Does it matter whether this particular word or usage survives unchanged? Almost certainly not.

But it isn't silly to care. "Literally" was largely synonymous with "truthfully." Now we accept that literally shouldn't be taken literally. The US also currently has an administration who have openly described such things as alternative facts and truth not being truth. And they have largely gotten away with it. Maybe we shouldn't be quite so blase about every day being opposite day.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:38 PM on September 11 [17 favorites]


There is ambiguity sometimes:

In that case, if the ambiguity is genuine, the stakes are still nil unless you are considering whether to lend them pants in the future. The system works!
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:50 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Not even getting into the usage of 'like' as a modifier in our language patterns but, to the point, that's their problem that they don't know that by adding 'literally' to their pants that were shat situation description it means they actually will be perceived as having had feces in their britches not just having a good chuckle or jump scare. That's on them, not your take on their phrasing nor on the word that was, potentially, used in a sloppy fashion by JohnDoeShittyPants.

I think I like, 'like' you.
posted by some loser at 9:04 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


from Weird Al's epic piece on prescriptive grammar, "Word Crimes":
I thought that you'd gotten it through your skull
About what's figurative and what's literal
Oh but, just now, you said
You literally couldn't get out of bed (What?)
That really makes me want to literally smack a crowbar upside your stupid head

posted by oneswellfoop at 9:13 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


But that isn't actually an argument in favor of jettisoning any given specific usage just because misuse is becoming common.

My counter-counter-argument here, because I do hear you on the sentiment, is that I think "jettisoning" is where the framing goes wonky. Because accepting a broader range of usage or meaning for a given word or phrase doesn't in any way imply or require abandoning the old usage. Accepting the use of figurative "literally" doesn't require us to retire literal "literally"; language is not a zero sum game or a container of fixed size. There's space for both. There is no short term worry that the new will cause the old to be jettisoned. If both are useful—and they clearly are, in their respective rhetorical contexts—then both will persist.

Long term, maybe literal literally will hit the skids! Or maybe emphatic, figurative literally will. Or both! The whole history of natural languages, English and all the rest, is riddled with mutation and growth and fads and slang and shifts and unearthings. What seems unassailably correct and worth protecting now was new a hundred years ago, or three hundred, or fifty; the unassailable bedrocks of defensible, proper, formal English usage are in many cases the invention of mouthy pedants a hundred-some years ago when writing books about usage itself became a new (and lasting) fad in what had previously been a more democratized, catch-as-catch-can approach to style and spelling.

But if we're managing to understand one another well enough now despite the little shifts and changes and mutations of the short term, we're in good shape. To be fond of and to want to preserve and promote this or that bit of usage is understandable, and I'm at times as prone to that as anyone, but I think there's a lot of social value in recognizing the distinction between "I value this usage" and "that usage is wrong or threatening". The former's some solid linguistic crouton-petting and never did anyone harm; the latter tends toward the reactionary and can lapse easily into gatekeeping and shaming, into using prescriptivism as a way of keeping people out of the club instead of celebrating how big and varied and full of surprises a shared, living language can be.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:20 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I have been using Sick to mean Good my whole life. I can't help where I grew up but I accept that when the resistance comes for all of us double speakers who got Trump elected with our careless slang, I will be against the wall.
posted by muddgirl at 10:41 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I think "literally" is so fetch.
posted by flabdablet at 1:09 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


Cortex: If someone says "literally" in a way you can tell defies the strict "literalness" meaning of the word, they haven't created ambiguity. You understood them! You may disagree with their usage, but you understand their meaning.

I can see ambiguity and misunderstanding happening in the other direction: when I'm telling what actually happened, but someone thinks I'm using a metaphor. There used to be a handy word to make the difference clear. But that doesn't work anymore.

And of course, if someone says "literally" in a way you can tell defies the strict "literalness" meaning of the word, I know what they mean. That follows from 'in a way you can tell'.
What happens if they say it in a way that I can't tell? It's not like that could never happen. So the above doesn't prove that ambiguity doesn't happen.

As always, these things are harder for people who are not native speakers of English.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:20 AM on September 12


I think "literally" is so fetch.

Stop trying to make "stop trying to make fetch happen" happen!

Oh ... hang on ... sorry - it happened.

Uh, I guess ... I should stop trying to make "stop trying to make 'stop trying to make fetch happen' happen!" happen-?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:02 AM on September 12 [6 favorites]


That depends on how much you enjoy literally chasing your own tail.
posted by flabdablet at 2:33 AM on September 12


Complex ideas are often best described with precise, complex language. Which requires that we value and teach usage that can support precision and complexity.

I'm not a linguist, so someone who is should certainly correct me if I'm off-base, but my understanding is that vocabulary gets more complicated and nuanced over time (unlike grammar which gets less complicated) as more people speak a particular language. Languages evolve and the drifting meaning of words is part of that evolution. The thing you're railing against here may actually be a necessity for the thing you want to achieve.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:57 AM on September 12


That depends on how much you enjoy literally chasing your own tail.

oh flabdablet! I'll never stop trying to make '''stop trying to make "stop trying to make 'stop trying to make fetch happen' happen!" happen-?''' happen. :-)
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:58 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


so we're out on the oval and i'm like stick, stick, here's your stick, it's a stick, look, a stick, oh hey it flew through the air! where's your stick, where's your stick, and he's just lifted his leg and given me this look that says, stop trying to make fetch happen, it's not going to happen
posted by flabdablet at 5:09 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


I'm going to use this thread to call out taz for the mod note in the latest politics thread calling a post on the blue a "mefi." It's weird because we do call things here on the grey "a metatalk" but for some reason calling an FPP a "Mefi" really got in my craw.
posted by frecklefaerie at 8:13 AM on September 12


I can see ambiguity and misunderstanding happening in the other direction: when I'm telling what actually happened, but someone thinks I'm using a metaphor.

But you/they probably can tell in cases where it's being used to intentionally convey unambiguous, non-figurative meaning, which is the situation where that lack of ambiguity is going to be most important. The tone of delivery, the pacing and phrasing of "I literally x", the framing words on either side, all contribute to the meaning we derive from a given phrase.

Again, not to say ambiguity can't or doesn't arise, but there's ambiguity-in-passing and ambiguity-as-genuine-hardship. And I'm sympathetic to the actual hardships, but I'm skeptical of that latter case arising organically often enough to be an issue proportional to the degree of peeveness that gets attached to literally-as-figurative, is about as far as I mean to take that.

But also that ambiguity is hardly unique or attached to figurative use of literally. Consider this pared down version of "I literally died!":

"I died!"

Same ambiguity exists in principle, without implicating the overloaded meanings of "literally": is this person telling a remarkable story about a brief period of medical death, or are they figuratively describing their shock and surprise at something? (Or describing a game situation! Or a role in a play! Or a dream, or...) From context it's almost certainly clear what's going on. In the cases where it's not clear, that most likely comes down to (a) deliberate omission of context for storytelling purposes or (b) broader communication difficulties between speaker and listener. Neither case hangs on any given intensifier; in this example, there isn't even one in play, just a likely shift in tone and emphasis on the word "died" itself.

What happens if they say it in a way that I can't tell?

You ask for clarification, if it's a context where getting clarification is worth your time. That depends on the stakes of the conversation. Someone you don't know, saying inconsequential nonsense? Don't bother, probably. Someone conveying information you need where the meaning is unclear? "Wait, literally literally?" or however you like.

There used to be a handy word to make the difference clear. But that doesn't work anymore.

The thing is, figurative use of literally as an intensifier dates back to the 18th century. People have been doing this for a very long time, changing the meaning of the word while also changing their delivery and context of the word to convey that shift in meaning. This really isn't a pure clean bedrock tool of meaning being suddenly bent to misuse.

As always, these things are harder for people who are not native speakers of English.

Which is an entirely fair point and by far the one that I'm most sympathetic to. But "literally" was only deceptively one of the reliable bits, in that sense; it has carried this self-contradicting polysemy around with it for a long time. Of the million ways native English speakers could help facilitate better communication with those coming later to the language, confining literally to only-literal meaning is way way down the list.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:50 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


I'm going to use this thread to call out taz for the mod note in the latest politics thread calling a post on the blue a "mefi."

Was that note recently edited? Bc I see ".... we have both a Mefi and Metatalk thread for updates and sharing," which I read to mean "we have both a Mefi thread and a Metatalk thread," not as "we have a Mefi, and we also have a Metatalk thread."
posted by solotoro at 8:54 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


The note wasn't edited, and from my understanding solotoro has parsed it as intended.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:03 AM on September 12


Cortex is quite right about context. One of my favorite examples of the insulating power of context is the word fast, which once meant 'firm'. We still use it that way in hold fast. That one context is specific enough to have maintained the original meaning for a thousand years. (The old meaning is also the source of the word fasten.)

(Are there any other words which have multiple senses we have to keep track of? Yes, almost all of them.)

The irony about literally is that the prescriptivists' "proper" meaning is itself an innovation. Originally the word meant "by the letter": there was a reform under Charlemagne where people were urged to speak Latin litteraliter, according to the letters, rather than substituting Old French. Later it meant "related to literature"— a 1593 cite in the OED describes a man as literally wise, that is, learned in literature.

Being annoyed at linguistic change is natural, and we all have our peeves. But no one's ever found a way to stop it, so it's best not to get too agitated.
posted by zompist at 9:07 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


calling a post on the blue a "mefi" ...

Well I think our meta-slanguage is not nearly obfuscating enough!

MeatFilter is a webbattle on many fronts now, and calling a MetaFilter post a "Front Page Post" might suggest that one of the other sub-sites is situated at the posterior of this glorious webpresence - that Ask MetaFilter (for example), is the Arse of MetaFilter! A shocking interpretation, and one we should all quiver to contemplate.

Thus I would suggest that we henceforth refer to all postages upon any MeFi sub-space by reference to their appropriate colour, or more specifically their modern dark theme colour hex, i.e.:

MetaFilter Post = #065a8fPP;
AskMetaFilter Question = #426746PP;
Fanfare Joint = #3e3354PP;
Project Projection = #2d5a5aPP;
Musical Amusement = #333333PP;
Job Solicitation = #544433PP;
IRL Event = #7A4427PP; and
Meta Talking = #595959PP.

And I cannot imagine a single reason why we would not all adopt the above nomenclature immediately and permanently!

(Because I am a fucking idiot. Literally! And, uh ... hexadecimally.)
posted by the quidnunc kid at 9:13 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Also boy howdy I'm unbottling a lot of pent-up energy into didactic yammering in here. Lemme try and regroup more explicitly constructively:

I think successful and clear communication is a really good goal and a worthy one with which to be concerned, both practically and aesthetically.

And I think that is the root of many, many language peeves: a given dispreferred usage representing, to someone who cares a lot about language and communication, a perceived broader failure by many folks to show that same level of care or dedication.

But! I think those peeves are most often a displacement of that care and concern from the general (and hard and vaporous and very difficult to tackle) problem of careful/thoughtful language use, which for all its difficulty and intractability seems like the proper target for such critical attention, onto instead words and meanings and usages which have no real consequence for the general problem but make easy, specific, socially-reinforceable targets for ire.

And the main reason I end up pushing back on peeving (when I don't get caught up it in myself, a habit I've tried hard but not entirely successfully to break!) is because I find people focusing constructively and generally on problems of communication and language far, far more interesting and enriching than hearing people gatekeep individual bits of usage that in fact arise naturally in use and generally reflect common, non-idiosyncratic shifts in usage and meaning.

Language is a living thing, and that's wonderful and fascinating and what I love about it, and that's a love I want to spread; if tons of folks do something with a word or a phrase that on the face of it seems illogical or surprising, I'm excited, I want to ask why and how it happens and what assumptions about language we were making that allowed that development to seem surprising, what logic we had mistakenly taken as a law without exceptions instead of a guideline. Or how two or three different aspects of language collided to create an unexpected outcome.

In general language-use terms, "why does that happen?" will bear so much more fruit—in conversation, in research, in self-reflection—than "that's bad, don't do that", and to the extent that I get caught up lecturing about this stuff it's because every time I see things take a turn toward "no, that's wrong", I see the questioning, exploratory, engaging conversations that are shutting down instead of opening up.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:57 AM on September 12 [8 favorites]


cortex, that's nice and all, but as someone who was taught English as a second language, and also as a literal thinker, I can only say that it feels really wrong to me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:26 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


And I also say that as someone who has learned to embrace singular 'they' because it's just so useful. It fills a real need.
I don't see that here; figurative 'literally' doesn't seem to make anything better, and it has the potential to sometimes make things worse.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:33 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


An example from my personal catalog of cloud-yelling, which illustrates, perhaps, precision of meaning being effaced: the use of "solipsism" as a fancy synonym for "selfishness". Solipsism is the belief that no other minds but mine exist, and it is different from just not much caring about them.
posted by thelonius at 10:40 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


I'd be interested in a comparison of the average length of a cortex MeTa comment with a jessamyn MeTa comment.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:47 AM on September 12


I'm going to be prescriptive about the use of "prescriptivism" here. Part of my job today involves going back through over text and inserting serial commas in places where they were missed by an earlier round of copyediting. That also includes holding my nose over phrases like "he or she" when the indefinite "they" works just as well. At work, RTFSG (read the fucking style guide) is the first commandment, and hopefully that style guide will have a new edition in the next month.

But that's not really prescriptivism. Serial commas are just one way to minimize the ambiguities of messy human language as rendered on the page, but they are not a mathematical law. It is absolutely not the case that civilization will fall if my organization uses a comma-optional style where ambiguity must be resolved by inserting a comma or reordering the list. The only thing that is at stake behind the style guide is whether this month's work is consistent with last year's work and how much labor someone like myself must put in to prepare a submission. That is critically important to us, but not at all to the continuity of the English language. I don't count it as really prescriptivism unless you put your favorite modes and styles on a cultural pedestal. Once you do that, you are not really advocating for communication or expressiveness, you are advocating for some sort of gatekeeping along the lines of race, class, gender, or age.

(If we were to put language modes on a pedestal, I'm going to nominate hip hop, which rivals Shakespeare for its ability to say a half-dozen different things in a single couplet. Chicago style doesn't need defending.)

The other dimension of this story is that language has multiple levels of wrongness. There's the purely semiotic, "does this word really mean that?" There's the grammatical, "oops did I forget a key word in this sentence?" But there are also speech acts, negotiated turn-taking, and control of the subject of the discussion. While correcting someone on their use of vocabulary may be grammatically correct, in conversation it can also be a hostile speech act, disrupt turn-taking, and derail the subject of the discussion. Unfortunately, education is much more concerned with the rules underlying artistic and professional work, and much less concerned with the equally important rules of how to have a conversation among relative equals.

Also, I think only about a half-dozen people are paid to participate in metafilter, so you get what you pay for in copyediting.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:28 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


Also, I don't think lying liars lie using language can be pinned on either changes in use or ambiguities. When Trump is quoted using the phrase "crooked Hillary" in a campaign ad, he's not exploiting an ambiguity in language, he's just lying (or bullshitting, if that matters).
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:51 PM on September 12


I don't see that here; figurative 'literally' doesn't seem to make anything better, and it has the potential to sometimes make things worse.

But that's an objection to existing, long-attested usage, not an objection to a proposed change. Which is to say, I totally totally feel you on the idea that a specific problem of usage would be simplified if there were no ambiguity in "literally", but that ambiguity such as it is does exist and is not new. Encountering figurative "literally" for the first time may feel like a complication of the language and a kind of betrayal by the speaker, but it's really just unearthing another bit of the language as it exists. Much the same as e.g. discovering a new irregular verb form that defies the orderly rules of standardized regular verb inflections.

Like, "had" is certainly not better than "haved" in formal general rules terms. It shirks a very useful production rule in favor of an idiosyncratic alternate formation. But it's part of the language, and an effort now to move from the regular to the irregular would be received with probably a lot of hostility, because that quirk of language is so embedded in English usage that long-time speakers can't help but perceive the more logical formation as unfamiliar and wrong.

Figurative literally wasn't invented to frustrate language-learners. It just happened, and it happened hundreds of years ago, just like singular they. We rarely take a lens to the history of usage when we're dealing with it on the day-to-day, because we're too busy going about the business of communicating and learning to communicate, and that totally makes sense. But that's partly what I'm getting at with the idea that peeves often feel like displacement: yes, language is often fucky and weird and that's doubly frustrating if you're making the huge effort of learning a new one as an adult, but the fucky part is how much of a jumble language naturally is, not the individual words and phrases and double- or treble-meanings that came out of that whole weird organic process.

English would be slightly simpler and slightly cleaner if "literally" had only one meaning. The same is true of many, many words. It'd be simpler and cleaner if there were no irregular verb forms, too. But natural languages aren't constructed languages; they don't begin a priori with rules, they arise as an accidental process when meatbags with big organic neural networks in their skulls need to flap their mouths or scratch on stone to get shit done better, and the rules that underly them grow out of a strange constantly-agitated consensus over time, complicated and sometimes contradictory and for the bulk of human history basically undocumented. Natural language is amazing and weird and in many ways terribly engineered, because it wasn't engineered.

I'd be interested in a comparison of the average length of a cortex MeTa comment with a jessamyn MeTa comment.

I think I did that a few years ago at one point and I was not, uh, the concise one.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:09 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


Concision is a by-product of precision.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:16 PM on September 12


Can we move on to flammable/inflammable now? Because whoooo boy that one lights me up!!!
posted by greermahoney at 2:31 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


Also how confusing is it that "to cleave" means both "to attach" and "to divide"????
posted by muddgirl at 2:34 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Can we move on to flammable/inflammable now? Because whoooo boy that one lights me up!!!

That one really burns my ass.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:37 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


I'm going to push back on precision, largely because I feel like for the last five years or so it's been trendy to use linguistic "precision" within LGBTQ circles to justify certain flavors of gatekeeping that, IMNSHO are ahistoric, offensive, ethnocentric, and don't reflect the messy realities of being LGBTQ. (There's similar movements in religion and politics as well.)

No, precision in language is not an inherent virtue when the ontological, cultural, or political reality is inherently ambiguous. Maybe instead of pinning our interpretation of meaning on the absurd notion that English should work like lojban, we should be asking more frequently, "What exactly do you mean by that?"
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 2:39 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


Also how confusing is it that "to cleave" means both "to attach" and "to divide"????

And "sanction" can mean both "to approve" and "to penalize/prohibit"? This language, it makes no sense.
posted by nubs at 2:44 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


I'm going to have to admit to being ignorant of the gatekeeping trends you're referencing, GenderNullPointerException. I would certainly agree that precision should never be used as an excuse for insensitivity.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:20 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]


Not to mention things like how "table a motion" has opposite meanings in UK and US English.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:35 PM on September 12


I think I like, 'like' you.

Like *like* like?
posted by h00py at 4:40 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Like Like
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:52 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


goddammit, my shield
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:55 PM on September 12


When Trump is quoted using the phrase "crooked Hillary" in a campaign ad, he's not exploiting an ambiguity in language, he's just lying (or bullshitting, if that matters).

Trump has used that phrase so often and so consistently that one might reasonably conclude that his belief in Hillary's crookedness is genuine, at least to the extent that one as deranged as he could be said to hold any genuine belief whatsoever. Which would make "crooked Hillary" not bullshit but horseshit.
posted by flabdablet at 6:39 PM on September 12


And having mulled that over for a few minutes, I am now irresistibly drawn to the metaphor of Trump's stream of consciousness as a slow yet inexorable glacier of horseshit, grinding all beneath him to rock flour while calving off huge pykretic horseshitbergs into the ocean of public discourse.

Bullshit, by way of comparison, is mere sloppy thinking.
posted by flabdablet at 7:01 PM on September 12


I think I've been convinced that this is not the sort of cloud to waste energy yelling at.

"Literally" is different from other words with multiple meanings, in a sort of meta-sense, because its meanings are about the relationship between representation and meaning. I don't think I'll ever be convinced that the presence of the figurative meaning of "literally" is aesthetically good, or amusing in the way "cleave" and "inflammable" are. To each their own.

I didn't realize until this conversation why it's relevant that "it's been used this way for centuries". I used to think "Why should I care? That doesn't make this usage better-advised." But a way in which that kind of statement is relevant is getting across the monumental effort required to change things. It's so hard to change usages that you should only bother when the effort is somehow worth it (e.g. because a usage is hurtful).

For a certain set of people, figurative "literally" is just going to grate the way "How's it going?" as a not-actually-a-question-but-a-greeting grates, but neither of those usages can be forced out of existence without an amount of effort that would be better spent moving the planet a couple million miles further out in its orbit to combat global warming, or maybe getting people to accept singular-they or stop using words with pejorative racial/ethnic shades.
posted by Jpfed at 9:43 PM on September 12


Jpfed: For a certain set of people, figurative "literally" is just going to grate the way "How's it going?" as a not-actually-a-question-but-a-greeting grates

I don't get that one either.
Look, I know better than to try and change other people's language. I just dislike some usage because it feels sloppy to me. Is that allowed or no? (Ouch.)
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:27 PM on September 12


Disliking usages is totally allowed! There's a ton of things I dislike or am otherwise fussy about. (Like, adjectival "myriad" is far more interesting to me than nominal "a myriad", even if the nominal form is older.) It's fine to have preferences or dispreferences; we have favorite colors and songs we dislike, so why not words and usages?

I tend to gripe when someone makes the transit beyond "I personally dislike x" to "my dislike of x is true because [shaky appeal to logic or ahistorical claims about usage or etc]". At that point, it's no longer sharing a preference, it's propping that preference up as something that other people are expected to be swayed by.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:36 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


I tend to gripe

No shit. It feels like I was hit by a verbal steamroller.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:41 PM on September 12


I can see how it would feel that way from the receiving end, but as a spectator it looked more like a verbal wave of hyped up puppies.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:59 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I'M LOOKING AT YOU EVERY SERVER CURRENTLY WORKING IN A CASUAL DINING ESTABLISHMENT

If this is the place to air our doomed and hopeless prescriptivist opinions about recent mistakes made in the development of this Language we hold in common, let me say that I am uncomfortable with "server". It seems like literally decades now since it first started becoming popular in the USA, and therefore on the Internet, and therefore the world over, and yet it troubles me. There is always a moment of confusion when I see it and first think of a 2U xeon-powered machine sitting in a rack, and wonder what that has to do with a luncheon service. The word you were looking for is "servant", surely? Is it not avoided simply because of mistaken prejudices based on ahistorical notions that old-fashiond servants were something like slaves? Couldn't we collectively have come up with some other word that wasn't already in use to mean something else? In fact, didn't we already have, at one time in slowly-fading memory, another word for the most common non-computer meaning of "server" that was in almost every way better?

I must admit ignorance on many of these questions. I don't know if "server" has a long and distinguished linguistic pedigree of which I am simply unaware, or if "servant" has genuinely relevant meaning which makes it inappropriate. To belatedly make up my mind now that the ascendency of "server" seems wholly inevitable, I am literally going to need to go and read Service and Servants in Early Modern English Culture to 1660 [pdf].
posted by sfenders at 4:49 AM on September 13


No shit. It feels like I was hit by a verbal steamroller.

Not literally-literally, I hope.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 5:02 AM on September 13


OED cites "server" as in "[a]n attendant at a meal, one who serves food and drink to those sitting at table" to the late 15th century, which does predate slightly its use in reference to production computing hardware.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:35 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


So at least it's old. I grant you, it's got that going for it. Consider me reassured.
posted by sfenders at 8:42 AM on September 13


When you object to the use of "literally" as an intensifier, you literally piss on the graves of Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, John Updike, and many other noted writers who used "literally" that way.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:03 AM on September 13


I'm okay with pissing on Updike's grave, actually.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:11 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


The word you were looking for is "servant", surely? Is it not avoided simply because of mistaken prejudices based on ahistorical notions that old-fashiond servants were something like slaves? Couldn't we collectively have come up with some other word that wasn't already in use to mean something else? In fact, didn't we already have, at one time in slowly-fading memory, another word for the most common non-computer meaning of "server" that was in almost every way better?

As far as "server" goes, I've never thought about servants with them, I just thought of the word as "a provider of things you requested," akin to the TV show "Are You Being Served?" Before there were servers, the blinkenlights boxes were called "the computer," though it was a gradual evolution through the 80s and into the 90s.

As late as 1998, I worked for an old-school marketing company who still got each set of survey results crosstabbed on hundreds of pages of line-printed 135 column paper from Booz-Allen, and this was almost certainly generated on a The Computer computer. Probably running COBOL. ZING

However, in the deep crevasses of server software, there is an actual tradition of using "master" and "slave" to describe the relationships between some kinds of related machines, and the tide has been turning on that.
posted by rhizome at 10:48 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


The problem with "server" isn't the word itself. It's the clumsy substitution of this word for waiter and waitress, as though simply calling both genders "waiters" would have unleashed some kind of anarchy, dogs and cats living together, fire falling from the skies, etc.

They told me my waiter was coming, but then a WOMAN showed up. How am I supposed to order potato skins in a situation like this?

I'm a fan of the increasing use of the word "actor" to refer to both male and female performers, and I don't see why we can't do the same with waiter.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:17 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


If this is the place to air our doomed and hopeless prescriptivist opinions about recent mistakes made in the development of this Language we hold in common, let me say that I am uncomfortable with "server". It seems like literally decades now since it first started becoming popular in the USA, and therefore on the Internet, and therefore the world over, and yet it troubles me.

Server came into common use in the US as a replacement for the gendered waiter/waitress. Back in the 1990s it used to bother me and because I was clever, witty and urbane I would hilariously refer to myself as "a gender neutral server." At some later point I started removing most of the gendered language from my speech as unnecessary. While "actor" works for both men and women, "waiter" has not caught on as a non-gendered term, so server mostly works better. It is okay for us to recognize things that we did not used to recognize and make changes to our speech out of basic respect for others. While you may feel fine with "servant" for the people who bring your food, I think that most people in the service industry would disagree with you and if you continued to use it would consider you an asshole.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:21 AM on September 13


the tide has been turning on that

Those all appear to be "Closed (won't fix)" or the equivalent. Anyway, I gotta go visit the mechanic, my car needs a new clutch server cylinder.
posted by sfenders at 11:24 AM on September 13


... except Jenkins, missed that one. I see they're hip to the new lingo.
posted by sfenders at 11:27 AM on September 13


Python, this week.
posted by rhizome at 12:48 PM on September 13


zone "example.org" IN {
  type boundless;
  file "example.zone";
  masters {
      NO GODS, NO MASTERS, DOWN WITH BIND9
  };
  allow-query { any; };
  allow-transfer { any; };
  allow-liberty-for-all { any; };
};
posted by sfenders at 1:03 PM on September 13


Literally is just the lastest in a long string of blah blah padding words to make a sentence weightier. Basically and actually have been stomping on my delicate nerves for fucking ever.

Mine own most hated modern usage is seeing "free reign" in text. It's "free rein" dammit. Of course, very few American persons have ever bridled or steered a horse. I always imagine a feisty quarter horse with a tiara reigning over the whole pasture.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:07 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]


If we're just airing grievances, the USian insistence that "I *could* care less" is not some awful corruption but actually a somewhat witty act of sarcasm has always struck me as akin to wandering out of the loo with your flies open and then drunkenly insisting you did it on purpose and it looks great.
posted by ominous_paws at 10:52 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Literally is just the lastest in a long string of blah blah padding words to make a sentence weightier. Basically and actually have been stomping on my delicate nerves for fucking ever.

Little ms. flabdablet is 13 now, so all of the above including "fucking" like stomp on mine like literally ALL THE TIME, I swear to god I'm not even kidding.
posted by flabdablet at 12:12 AM on September 14


If you accept the claim that "I could care less" is a truncation of "I could care less if I cared more" -- I saw this in a comment on The Awl a few years ago -- it is witty.
posted by jamjam at 12:33 AM on September 14


If we're just airing grievances, the USian insistence

Another grievance that's been aired in MeTa many times is people not liking to be called USian.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:05 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


Here's another grievance: if you don't actually have a clever title for your new politics mega thread, it's OK to just give it a straight one
posted by thelonius at 2:21 PM on September 14


The Word "Literally": Overused. Be Aware.
In other news, hurricanes are big, wet. Be Aware.


I keed because, love. in case that's another construction that annoys people.
posted by theora55 at 7:33 PM on September 14


I like it. I'm staunchly pro-triplet rhythms. It's like a little drum fill in the middle of a sentence.
posted by umbú at 7:53 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Really more of a ratamacue if you want to get right down to it.
posted by rhizome at 9:50 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]




I was actually sorta joking about William Safire but I just checked. In fact, I was wrong, it was not 1984, but 1979.
posted by Miko at 1:59 PM on September 15


Ok.

Listen:

Can we talk about the use of the words “listen”and “talk” in a medium where very few people are literally listening to the content or literally vocalizing responses?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:01 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I hear ya.
posted by solotoro at 11:24 AM on September 16 [4 favorites]


Can we talk about how my coworker says "chillin' like a villain" at least once and as many as five times a day?
posted by asperity at 10:03 AM on September 17


Have you considered the possibility they are secretly Mr. Freeze?
posted by Chrysostom at 10:29 AM on September 17 [1 favorite]


I am and will remain entirely unmoved by this point until you can cite actual real-world examples of ambiguity, because I'm pretty sure you just mean it introduces something that annoys you, not that you've ever actually been unsure if when a person described their head as "literally exploding" or some such you were unsure what meaning of the word "literally" they were invoking.

Sure. Just recently my father in law was visiting from out of town. I told him we had literally ten times more mosquitoes than normal. In retrospect, he almost certainly thought I was engaging in hyperbole. I was not. Likewise there was a time (maybe this is still a thing) when people would describe themselves as "literally crying" with laughter over something they thought was ridiculous. I am perhaps too (literally^n as n->infinity) literal so I was not sure whether actual tears were involved. Anyway, I don't expect anyone to be "moved" by my examples. But for certain people whose baseline expectations are of actual literalness, they exist.
posted by Jpfed at 9:05 AM on September 18 [1 favorite]


he almost certainly thought I was engaging in hyperbole

It's interesting. The sentence is stronger without "literally." If it's truly ten times more, it's ten times more (the articles says "25 times more." It's even interesting to note that the colloquial "ten times" also undermines the literalism of the phrase - "ten times" is easily lumped into the same category as "a million times" or "nonstop" or "constantly" or "forever" or "umpteen" and other words supposedly signifying quantity that are not to be taken ...literally.

I've literally cried with laughter, even literally bent over and literally breathless from laughter.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on September 18


For some reason I feel compelled to rewatch Parks and Recreation at the moment.
posted by rhizome at 4:09 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]


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