"Literally" is its own antonym! How can this be?
March 28, 2006 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Thanks to a derail in this thread, I have learned that Merriam-Webster now believes that "literally" also means "virtually." This has shaken me to the core, and seems to be evidence of the English language being irrevocably broken. I beg you to ease my soul and prove this isn't true by giving me evidence of other English words that, over time, have come to mean their own antonyms.
posted by Faint of Butt to Writing & Language (103 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Tha's one "Bad" book, man.
posted by Gungho at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2006


I don't know if it's exactly what you want, but there's good old "flammable" and "inflammable"
posted by Robot Johnny at 12:45 PM on March 28, 2006


Inflammable?
posted by kirkaracha at 12:47 PM on March 28, 2006


Why is it that "priceless" and "worthless" are antonyms?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:47 PM on March 28, 2006


Cleave!
posted by lisa g at 12:48 PM on March 28, 2006


I could or couldn't care less about the answer to this question.
posted by COBRA! at 12:52 PM on March 28, 2006


Are you counting phrases, like how "doing a heck of a job" means "incompetent" now?
posted by breath at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2006


Dust those crops!
posted by jewzilla at 12:54 PM on March 28, 2006


And don't forget 'let', chum!

From UK passports: "to allow the bearer to pass without let or hindrance"

vs.

regular usage in which let means the exact opposite.

how's that, ey?
posted by dance at 12:55 PM on March 28, 2006


""doing a heck of a job" means "incompetent""

It does? I can't say I've ever heard it used to mean anything but "great job."
posted by CrayDrygu at 12:57 PM on March 28, 2006


CrayDrygu: "heckuva job" means "incompetent" (or perhaps even malcompetent) only special cases: the world of post-Katrina relief efforts, and snarking on metafilter.
posted by adamrice at 12:59 PM on March 28, 2006


"Doing a 360" is used as if it's "doing a 180".
posted by Hubajube at 1:03 PM on March 28, 2006


Here is a FAQ listing a few phrases whose meanings have done a 360. The best one listed is "head over heels".
posted by Hubajube at 1:06 PM on March 28, 2006


If I answer, will you sanction me?
posted by found missing at 1:06 PM on March 28, 2006


Heh, the old "parking in the driveway" and "driving on a parkway"?
posted by aeighty at 1:08 PM on March 28, 2006


There are some moe contranyms listed here, with a brief explanation of how they come to be at Wikipedia.
posted by Tuwa at 1:08 PM on March 28, 2006


Eh. *more* contranyms, rather. Oh, a wiseguy, eh?
posted by Tuwa at 1:08 PM on March 28, 2006


Terrific?
posted by malocchio at 1:12 PM on March 28, 2006


Here's a Slate article that's made me feel somewhat better. I found it linked off the Wikipedia page that Tuwa posted.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:16 PM on March 28, 2006


Cleave, which means both "to split" and "to join."
posted by maxreax at 1:18 PM on March 28, 2006


Virtually.
posted by grimmelm at 1:21 PM on March 28, 2006


Thrifty
posted by kenchie at 1:22 PM on March 28, 2006


Here's something else that might make you feel better about the whole thing:

Michael Israel, a linguist I've worked with, has written a few pieces on the semantics and pragmatics of "literally" and the particular change you mention. (The handout to a conference talk of his on some aspects of this is available online if you want to read more about it.) Anyway, it's not exactly that "literally" now means "virtually." Instead, the newer, looser usage indicates a high degree of speaker commitment to the way that something is phrased, expressing a judgment about the fortuitousness of describing something in a particular way.

This trajectory of semantic change is similar to the one that words like "really" and "truly" have undergone, though it's not as far along. Consider a sentence like "That habenero really blew my head off!" for comparison.
posted by redfoxtail at 1:23 PM on March 28, 2006


I have learned that Merriam-Webster now believes that "literally" also means "virtually."

Well, no -- Merriam-Webster has observed that people use "literally" to mean "virtually". You've done the same, but you don't publish your observations.
posted by mendel at 1:24 PM on March 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


And Jesse Sheidlower of course makes the comparison to "really" in the Slate piece you've linked to, as well. It's a good one.
posted by redfoxtail at 1:26 PM on March 28, 2006


Extremely well put, mendel. I'll have to remember that.

And language change does not equal "broken language" or all our languages would have been irretrievably smashed millennia ago.
posted by languagehat at 1:27 PM on March 28, 2006


There's a story that I've seen in various places on which highlights three of these (none of the places were particularly authoratative, so I've no idea if it's true).

Supposedly, after the great fire of London in 1666 Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild St. Paul's Cathedral. Viewing the restoration, Queen Anne is said to have proclaimed it "awful, artificial and amusing."

All three words have changed their common meanings. By "awful" she meant awe inspiring or awesome, by "artificial" she meant it showed great artistry or skill in construction (artifice), and "amusing" was closer in meaning to amazing or fascinating.

(I learn via google that the quote is attributed to Queen Anne in Richard Lederer's book Crazy English (search inside shows it exactly))
posted by patricio at 1:31 PM on March 28, 2006 [1 favorite]


"Passion", which can mean both to enjoy something tremendously and to suffer tremendously.

Of course, it's not an antonym for masochists.
posted by tkolar at 1:37 PM on March 28, 2006


Inflammable did not change its meaning. It's always meant burnable (able to be inflamed). The reason it's being replaced by flammable is that some people thought it meant "not burnable," but it never did.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:37 PM on March 28, 2006


That was nice, mendel.

Speaking of nice... well, it's not an antonym. But if you like archaic language, a "nice person" could just as easily be a "stupid person," as opposed to an "agreeable person."
posted by teece at 1:38 PM on March 28, 2006


I'm ready for the definition of "nonplussed" to go ahead and change now. As I've seen it used correctly, oh, maybe 6 times in my entire life.

People clearly want it to mean something else. So, let's make them right instead of me totally mental every time I hear/read it.
posted by birdie birdington at 1:38 PM on March 28, 2006


And of course, that wonderful bastard child of modern marketing, "quantum".

A quantum is the smallest possible unit of measure, and yet every new thing is a Quantum Leap Forward!
posted by tkolar at 1:39 PM on March 28, 2006


people thought it meant "not burnable," but it never did.

That makes no sense, Kirth Gerson. Words mean what people think they mean. They do not have an intrinsic meaning.
posted by teece at 1:39 PM on March 28, 2006


statesman
posted by rob511 at 1:53 PM on March 28, 2006


Worth noting that the reason "cleave" means both "stick together" and "slice apart" is a historical accident, because the modern word has two different origins.

The "stick together" one is from French and the slice one is from Norse or something. It's not actually an example of the thing FOB's talking about.

A more interesting one would be "original". When studying Chaucer we were told that an "original" story used to mean "an old and well-known" story, it came from the origins, not was an origin itself.

And how about "quite", for an example of a modern word which depending on the context, may mean "only a bit, only to a certain extent" as in "Is he tall? He's quite tall but he's no giant" or it may mean "completely and totally" as in "I'm quite sick of this job, I'm leaving".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:58 PM on March 28, 2006


"Silly" used to mean "blessed" -- then the meaning drifted to "innocent", then "deserving of compassion", then "weak", then "foolish".
posted by martinrebas at 1:59 PM on March 28, 2006


Why is it that "priceless" and "worthless" are antonyms?

Because price and worth are fundamentally different. As in, "a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing". Nice one, Oscar.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:01 PM on March 28, 2006


birdie: see also "bemused," which is almost invariably misused to mean "slightly amused"
posted by adamrice at 2:04 PM on March 28, 2006


In order to stop myself being driven nuts by this, I've found a way to pretend that "literally" means what people now want it to mean -- I pretend they're talking about literature, where (as we all know) strange things happen! Heads being blown off by hot chillies, people learning to fly -- literally!

Well, it makes me feel better, anyway. It's still WRONG.
posted by coriolisdave at 2:06 PM on March 28, 2006


That Slate article has me fuming -- I don't feel qualified to comment on Louisa May Allcott, but the author seems to think that when he produces examples from Mark Twain or James Joyce where "literally" is used in not-actually-literal contexts, he's scored some kind of a point.

Does he not realise that authors sometimes write in other people's voices? What a maroon!

I hear that a character in Tom Sawyer uses the word "larnin'" instead of "learning" too. Bad Twain!
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:11 PM on March 28, 2006


A quantum is the smallest possible unit of measure

as far as i understand things, a quantum is not (by definition, but seem final comments) the smallest possible unit of measure. a quantised system is one in which values can take only certain values, but you can certainly measure smaller values - otherwise how would you ever know that they were quantised? for example, you see lines in the spectra of excited atomes, which correspond to quantum levels, but it is quite possible to measure wavelengths of light corresponding to smaller transitions.

an example might make things clearer. if people's heights were quantised everyone might measure an exact multiple of feet - when you measure someone's height you would measure 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or maybe 7 feet. not 5' 6". but you could still have rulers that measured inches. inches remain inches, and a valid unit of measure, even if people only come in multiples of a foot. if that were not true - if you couldn't even measure smaller than a foot - then how would you notice anything odd about people? you wouldn't realise there were no 5'6" people because 6" would have no meaning.

so quantum change means "a shift to a different, distinct level" more than "smallest measurable change" (but it is valid to say it's "smallest possible change").

having said that, i'm wondering if there is an example that is the smallest unit possible. afaik there's no real lower limit to the energy of a photon (unless the universe is finite?). quantisation seems to reflect the restrictions imposed by the environment (so it might be fairer to say that "smallest measurable unit" is true inside the environment constraining the system?).

sorry, a bit off-topic, but i'd never really considered this before.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:14 PM on March 28, 2006


That makes no sense, Kirth Gerson. Words mean what people think they mean. They do not have an intrinsic meaning.

You know very well that it makes sense. There is one meaning that is used by people who are experts in the area, and one meaning used by the general populace. The "quantum" example in this thread is another good one. Do you really think that the term as used by physicists is less accurate than the term as used by fans of Scott Bakula?
posted by dagnyscott at 2:15 PM on March 28, 2006


The only language that doesn't change is a dead language.

You might enjoy The Word Nerds podcast. They had an episode about "literally" that changed my mind on the issue -- sorry, I don't know which episode exactly ...
posted by kmel at 2:18 PM on March 28, 2006


I'll never use "literally" when I mean "figuratively," irregardless of what Merriam Webster says.
posted by alms at 2:24 PM on March 28, 2006


We could argue about this all day, if you ask me, the answer is moot.
posted by DragonBoy at 2:25 PM on March 28, 2006


It's very interesting to see all the different ways people are begging this question.
posted by alms at 2:27 PM on March 28, 2006


Not precisely an antonym, but a "couple" of things literally means "two" things. Many people use it in lieu of a "few" (i.e. some undefined quantity usually more than two).

Oddly, these same people will often refer to a married couple as a "couple" without making the connection that they are called such becuase there are two of them.
posted by Durhey at 2:28 PM on March 28, 2006


You know very well that it makes sense.

No it doesn't. Literally. A word has no intrinsic meaning. Gerson is trying to pretend they do.

There is one meaning that is used by people who are experts in the area, and one meaning used by the general populace.

This bears no relation to what Gerson says. This is actually something like I would have said (although I would have ditched the expert/general terms, which are just an appeal to authority in an attempt to fix one meaning [ie, the one the reader likes] as the correct, arbitrary meaning assigned to a word).

These things are fascinating to me. Getting worked up about? The height of silly. Words change meaning. Deal with it. In many of the examples here, there's a damn good reason for the meaning changing -- inflammable looks like it should mean "not capable of easily catching fire." You shouldn't (and don't) need knowledge of Latin intensifiers to speak English. So the idea that "inflammable" was going to mean something quite counterintuitive to many English speakers was damn silly to begin with.

Many of the conventions you now call "proper" English are themselves descended from similar mistakes. Do you get worked up about them, too?
posted by teece at 2:35 PM on March 28, 2006


"Doing a 360" is used as if it's "doing a 180".

That is still punishable by death.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:40 PM on March 28, 2006


One that makes me grit my teeth lately is "enormity" as though it doesn't mean "evil" but rather "bigness."
posted by kindall at 2:43 PM on March 28, 2006


irregardless = regardless
"Begging the Question" means answering the question in advance, not prompting someone to ask it, as is common usage nowdays.

ps. A statesman is a dead politician, and Lord knows we need more statesmen.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:49 PM on March 28, 2006


How about egregious? It used to be used to mean something or someone was distinguished, which then changed to conspicuous, but now is used almost exclusively to mean something is conspicuously bad.
posted by MsMolly at 2:57 PM on March 28, 2006


All my life, "upside down" was the opposite of "downside up".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:58 PM on March 28, 2006


The OP makes me cry. I think of all the idiots I suffered through saying literally in the wrong way and I get really sad knowing that they are correct, in the future & retroactively.
posted by Brainy at 3:00 PM on March 28, 2006


the quote is attributed to Queen Anne in Richard Lederer's book Crazy English

Richard Lederer is completely unreliable—his books are the linguistic equivalent of those "wacky things kids say" collections.

One that makes me grit my teeth lately is "enormity" as though it doesn't mean "evil" but rather "bigness."

OED:
1792 Munchhausen's Trav. xxii. 93 A worm of proportionable enormity had bored a hole in the shell. 1802 HOWARD in Phil. Trans. XCII. 204 Notwithstanding the enormity of its bulk. 1830 Fraser's Mag. I. 752 Of the properties of the Peak of Teneriffe accounts are extant which describe its enormity. 1846 DE QUINCEY Syst. Heavens Wks. III. 183 The whitish gleam was the mask conferred by the enormity of their remotion.

But I realize your English is better than De Quincey's.

As for the rest: what teece said.
posted by languagehat at 3:04 PM on March 28, 2006


Yeah, right.
posted by keswick at 3:06 PM on March 28, 2006


It's not as cut and dry, but moot always annoys me. It technically means a point which is very much up for debate, but is often used for its "hypothetical" definition, which often ends up sounding like it means exactly the opposite.
posted by heresiarch at 3:15 PM on March 28, 2006


The OP makes me cry. I think of all the idiots I suffered through saying literally in the wrong way and I get really sad knowing that they are correct, in the future & retroactively.

Have you read the entry in the Merriam-Webster online? It does not say "literally: means figuratively". It goes into quite some detail about how much people hate this and consider it wrong.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:20 PM on March 28, 2006


And no, of course words have no intrinsic meaning, teece, and people who think they do are petty and small-minded, not like you.

By the way, I'd like to buy your car for ten thousand dollars.

Of course, by the words "ten thousand", which have no intrinsic meaning, I mean "one". I'm sure you won't be petty and small-minded enough to object.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:24 PM on March 28, 2006


We could argue about this all day, if you ask me, the answer is mu.
posted by youarenothere at 3:25 PM on March 28, 2006


Boy, I've never heard that oh-so-clever argument before, AmbroseChapel. Of course, those Canadians are just wrong for having an alternate dollar. Just like those stupid idiots that say [insert your "incorrectly" used word here]. (but seriously, drop the bullshit about petty and small minded: you're projecting).

youarenothere:

No, it's a moo point. It's like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter.
posted by teece at 3:43 PM on March 28, 2006


"What I can do with these fetuses is literarily a miracle"

"I literally shit my pants"
posted by idontlikewords at 4:09 PM on March 28, 2006


But I realize your English is better than De Quincey's.

At least it's more up-to-date.
posted by kindall at 4:11 PM on March 28, 2006


"Penultimate" to mean "really ultimate"
posted by kirkaracha at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2006


but seriously, drop the bullshit about petty and small minded: you're projecting

And you're a second-stage newbie. You've only recently realised that word meanings change and that dictionaries describe rather than prescribe and you're all full of your newfound liberation and wisdom. I assume you're in your early twenties?

The problem with "literally" is, oh-so-clever arguments aside, that one no longer knows what someone means when they use it. If they say "he literally exploded" we can assume no explosion took place, but if they say "he literally fell out of his chair laughing" we're stuck. He may or may not have fallen out of his chair.

Similarly, if I want to assure someone that someone fell out of their chair laughing, when previously I could have said "literally", I can no longer rely on that word to express literalness. And there's no other word for "literally".

What people are moaning about isn't that word meanings have changed, it's that we live in a time when a perfectly good word has been lost to us.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:24 PM on March 28, 2006


teece, you don't know it but you're having the prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate. You cannot win this argument. On the other hand, you can't lose it either. Have fun.
posted by ook at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2006


Here's what you need to know (and believe me, this has been a hobbyhorse of mine since I first had the misfortune of being exposed to the execrable excuse for a dictionary that is Merriam-Webster): Merriam-Webster is an EXECRABLE excuse for a dictionary. The main reason it is an execrable excuse for a dictionary is that it positively delights in exactly this sort of blurring and denaturing of the English language. It thinks that the misuse of "momentarily" to mean "soon" is now acceptable, for example. It is riddled with this sort of thing. It embraces errors and ambiguities and seeks to make them valid in a way that reminds me of the empty-headed hippy English teacher: "Hey man, if the kidz are talkin' that way now, that's cool. Language evolves, maaan."

Yeah. Language evolves. But when it evolves into a three-headed torso-child it should DIE.

I hate Merriam-Webster with a passion that transcends all human understanding, and anyone who truly loves the English language should do so too. Don't let these fuckers win. Start by using Chambers.
posted by Decani at 4:34 PM on March 28, 2006


I think the webster's entry is actually (yeah, for reals) rather witty.
Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary
(Italics mine.)

Ambrose, I think you're over-reacting. I've been getting along just find without knowing wether people are actually (for reals) laughing out loud. Though I think we can start LLOL or FROTFLOL. Actually, "He may or may not have fallen out of his chair." made me LLOL when I imagined it said in an extremely tense, slow action-movie voice. What ever shall we do? Get back in there and get more info! Is he... or is he not on the floor?

So... on a serious note, does actually remain pure and chaste in the realm of the real? It's so boring I don't think people use it for emphasis (whether necessary or not.)

It's actually raining cats and dogs.
posted by Wood at 4:38 PM on March 28, 2006


At least it's more up-to-date.

Exactly—and now people are more up-to-date than you!
You fell into my trap!
posted by languagehat at 4:39 PM on March 28, 2006


And you're a second-stage newbie. You've only recently realised that word meanings change and that dictionaries describe rather than prescribe and you're all full of your newfound liberation and wisdom. I assume you're in your early twenties?

Did you really just write that? Not a newbie. Not in my 20s. Probably understand the language better than you.

Please quit being an ass.

I realize what I'm doing, ook. I realize it's pointless. But I enjoy having the prescriptivists vs. descriptivist debate, even when folks like AmbroseChapel can't help themselves and start flinging feces. I'm a glutton.
posted by teece at 4:45 PM on March 28, 2006


we live in a time when a perfectly good word has been lost to us.

Who hasn't? For that matter, think of all the perfectly good words that were never even available in the first place...
posted by advil at 4:51 PM on March 28, 2006


Similarly, if I want to assure someone that someone fell out of their chair laughing, when previously I could have said "literally", I can no longer rely on that word to express literalness. And there's no other word for "literally".

I may just start saying things like, "He non-metaphorically fell out of his chair laughing." You're welcome to join me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:57 PM on March 28, 2006


Peruse:
a. to examine or consider with attention and in detail
b. to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner
posted by jewzilla at 4:58 PM on March 28, 2006


Not a newbie. Not in my 20s.

If you're not in your 20s then you should be appropriately embarrassed.

And I called you, not a newbie, but a "second-stage newbie". Funny how someone so sensitive to language didn't pick up on that subtle distinction. Perhaps with your belief in the freedom for words to mean whatever any given person wants them to mean at any given time, you thought I mean "ham sandwich"?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:05 PM on March 28, 2006


I have no idea what a second-stage newbie is, but I'd like to play anyway.

Of course words don't have intrinsic meanings. But that doesn't mean there's no such thing as misuse. Language only exists when the people communicating agree on the meaning. Language is that agreement. When Group B changes the meaning of a word, they can no longer communicate properly with Group A. In Group A's frame of reference, the word has been misused. Appeals to authority, or even even to majority won't change that fact. You can try to convince someone that they should use your definition if they want to communicate with you, but neither usage can be deemed right or wrong. It just means you are no longer speaking the same language.

Not to say it still doesn't still piss me off. My favorite example is the David Cross bit:

"Dude, it was so funny I literally shit my pants!"

"Well, what did you do?"

"What do you mean, dude? I was laughing..."

"I mean, what did you do with your shitty pants?"

"No, dude, I didn't REALLY shit my pants, I LITERALLY shit my pants!"
posted by team lowkey at 5:17 PM on March 28, 2006


AmbroseChapel, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about, and you're just digging your hole deeper every time you try to reply to teece, who knows his shit. If you ever take a linguistics class or read a book on the subject and actually learn something about language, you'll look back on your contributions here and be deeply embarrassed.

Here's a hint: the fact that most people don't use literally the way you'd like them to does not mean you can use any word however you want. That's just silly.
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on March 28, 2006


Ambrose: That "ham sandwich" is a "sandwich," right? So a "second-stage newbie" is, then, a newbie.

Funny how someone so sensitive to language didn't pick up on that. You're just being an ass at this point, and it shows.
posted by CrayDrygu at 5:27 PM on March 28, 2006


I don't think I'm digging a hole at all. I'm just insulting someone who's being a bit of a tosser, that's all. Look, I did it again.

When words change their meanings, that's cool. Words mean whatever Humpty Dumpty, sorry, teece, want them to mean, and it's stuffy to think otherwise.

But my reductio ad absurdam isn't cool -- of course some words, like numbers, don't change their meanings, nobody would be able to understand each other at all! -- and I'm being "oh so clever", i.e. a dick, for pointing that out.

Perhaps teece would like to just post a list of all the words which can change and all the words which can't?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:02 PM on March 28, 2006


For that matter, do you realize how many perfectly good languages have been lost in your lifetime? And you're sitting here getting all upset about a little word.
posted by advil at 6:06 PM on March 28, 2006


Wow, googling around, I find that:

"manufacture" used to mean "make by hand."
"counterfeit" used to mean "an original."
"garble" used to mean "to sort out."

I'd be curious to know how long those words existed in both senses. How long will "literally" exist meaning two contradictory things? I suspect, eventually, the non-literal meaning of "literally" will win out, ironically. Is that a great tragedy? You're free to think so, but I don't think it is. It just is. There are literally (ha!) thousands upon thousands of words in the English language which no longer have meanings they once did.

Ambrose: What seems to have set you off is my stating the simple fact that words do not have an intrinsic meaning. Words have meaning by consensus: the meaning is arbitrary, not intrinsic.

That is so obviously true that I guarantee you you can not refute it. If stating that makes me a tosser, good. I'll gladly be a tosser if it means I understand the nature of humanity's greatest invention: language.
posted by teece at 6:17 PM on March 28, 2006


teece, you left out part of what I wrote, namely the word "some." Some people thought inflammable meant not burnable. Most people did not think that; it's always been generally understood correctly, even without knowing anything about Latin intensifiers.

Because those few who misunderstood could create safety problems, the people who get to define labeling on gasoline trucks mandated changing to "flammable." This was not a response to huge numbers of people getting it wrong - it was a response to the damage that a very small number of people could cause by getting it wrong. Ironically, reviving the second term actually increased the number of people who misunderstand the first, but they're still a small minority.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:18 PM on March 28, 2006


That Slate article has me fuming -- I don't feel qualified to comment on Louisa May Allcott, but the author seems to think that when he produces examples from Mark Twain or James Joyce where "literally" is used in not-actually-literal contexts, he's scored some kind of a point.

Does he not realise that authors sometimes write in other people's voices? What a maroon!

I hear that a character in Tom Sawyer uses the word "larnin'" instead of "learning" too. Bad Twain!


While we're all piling on you, Ambrose Chapel, for being wrong (and being a jerk about being wrong), it's worth pointing out that your interpretation of the Slate article is quite misguided. The idea is not that the authors themselves buy into that meaning of "literally," but rather that its usage is old and widespread enough that the generally well-educated authors and their generally well-educated audiences would understand it. The characters (or narrators) who use "literally" in each of Sheidlower's examples, for that matter, as presented generally as intelligent and (mostly) trustable; they aren't depicted as idiots.

He's not looking for points. He's showing us that this usage of "literally" in a non-literal way isn't A) new or B) limited to the uneducated or untalented.
posted by maxreax at 6:29 PM on March 28, 2006


Sorry, Kirth Gerson, I see what you're saying, but even assuming it's true (I don't know how widespread the opposite meaning was), it doesn't eliminate the problem of your argument (assuming you were trying to make an argument).

Judging by how common "in-" is as a negation in English, though, I strongly suspect a large minority or even a majority might think the word means the opposite of "easily catches fire." And that's more than enough to say it means "can't catch fire easily" as well as the opposite. It's consensus that makes meaning.
posted by teece at 6:32 PM on March 28, 2006


Words mean whatever Humpty Dumpty, sorry, teece, want them to mean, and it's stuffy to think otherwise.

No, words mean whatever most English speakers "want them to mean" (i.e., use them to mean), and not you nor I nor teece nor (thank god) any stuffy Academy gets to tell them what that is. If they want to use bead to mean 'little round thing' instead of 'prayer' (which is what it originally meant), they're going to do it and you can't stop them. I'm sorry you're having such a hard time grasping the concept, but I'm sure if you work on it you'll get it eventually.

And now that you know the original (= true, right?) meaning of bead, I expect you'll start correcting people who use the degenerate modern sense. Go for it!
posted by languagehat at 6:45 PM on March 28, 2006


What seems to have set you off is my stating the simple fact that words do not have an intrinsic meaning.

Not at all. It was the fact you were so pompous and patronising about it. I'm smart enough to know that, as is everyone else here, and indeed most small children.

But you were dismissive "Words change meaning. Deal with it." and you used a straw man argument "A word has no intrinsic meaning. Gerson is trying to pretend they do." which is clearly nonsense. My point, once again, is that you're being a tosser.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:04 PM on March 28, 2006


The characters (or narrators) who use "literally" in each of Sheidlower's examples, for that matter, as presented generally as intelligent and (mostly) trustable; they aren't depicted as idiots.

It's possible you're right, but it's certainly not obvious from the context, is it? Are you so familiar with the works in question you know that for a fact, or did you look them up?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:08 PM on March 28, 2006


"note: Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand -- not at other members of the site."
posted by tkolar at 7:09 PM on March 28, 2006


Well, teece, if words mean whatever people think they mean, then I think it matters how many of the people subscribe to which meaning. In the case of flammable and inflammable, it's telling that someone coined flammable in the 19th century (from a different Latin root, apparently), but it did not catch on (no pun intended). That says to me that there was no reason to adopt it, because inflammable was not confusing many people. There wasn't much gasoline around then, of course.

My point is that inflammable never meant fireproof, at least not to very many people. So it didn't fit the criteria of the OP, because it hasn't reversed its meaning. I think you'd be hard pressed to find it used in print as meaning fireproof.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:17 PM on March 28, 2006


If they want to use bead to mean 'little round thing' instead of 'prayer' (which is what it originally meant), they're going to do it and you can't stop them. I'm sorry you're having such a hard time grasping the concept, but I'm sure if you work on it you'll get it eventually.

Wow, now you're trying to patronise me too. Ow, it really stings.

Of course I understand that concept -- have I at any time said I didn't? But you know what, "bead" and "prayer" aren't antonyms, and we're not currently in a period in which they're being used interchangeably, so, actually, that's not a very good example at all.

I can only repeat my question to you and teece -- which are the words which shouldn't be allowed to change?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:18 PM on March 28, 2006


Decimate. ... originally referred to the killing of every tenth person, a punishment used in the Roman army for mutinous legions. Today this meaning is commonly extended to include the killing of any large proportion of a group.
posted by SPrintF at 7:24 PM on March 28, 2006


My point is that inflammable never meant fireproof, at least not to very many people. So it didn't fit the criteria of the OP, because it hasn't reversed its meaning. I think you'd be hard pressed to find it used in print as meaning fireproof.

You sure about that? My informal poll is now up to 5 - 0 in favor of people thinking it means "not flammable." Maybe that's a result of the (fairly justified) banishment recently, maybe not. Maybe I only know idiots. Maybe there's a real disconnect between folks taught "proper garmmar" and those that just speak English. I don't have hard data. Do you? (That's genuine curiosity, not stark).

Sorry I misread your original post, though. It did not read like you were making an argument about usage frequency -- it read like you were prescribing the "correct" meaning, at least to me.
posted by teece at 8:36 PM on March 28, 2006


andrew cooke: as far as i understand things, a quantum is not (by definition, but seem final comments) the smallest possible unit of measure. a quantised system is one in which values can take only certain values, but you can certainly measure smaller values

i agree with your final comments: a quantum is the smallest unit you can measure within the system. When you're in the system, you can't measure smaller values, because they don't exist. Your feet-and-inches ruler example doesn't work, because your ruler can't exist within the foot-quantised system.

However, just because you can't directly measure less than a quantum doesn't mean that you can't hypothesize such a quantity. You just couldn't realise it within the physical constraints of your system.

So, i'm with tkolar's suggestion that quantum is sometimes used to mean both big and small.
posted by nml at 9:02 PM on March 28, 2006


Wow, now you're trying to patronise me too

I treat people as they seem to want to be treated based on the Golden Rule. You want people to treat you with respect, don't go around shooting off your mouth at people the way you have been.

which are the words which shouldn't be allowed to change?

I guess you don't want to get it. There is no "allowed." Who would do the allowing, the Big Guy in the Sky? The Language Instinct? Language changes. End of story. Words are constantly changing in sound and meaning. People don't like it because they get used to the sounds and meanings they grew up with, just as they don't like other kinds of changes. But the world changes, and language changes, and you can either bitch and moan and wish somebody would stop the world so you can get off, or you can get used to it.
posted by languagehat at 9:59 PM on March 28, 2006


teece, I can see how my OC sounded like that, and I didn't mean to be prescriptive. I just didn't think inflammable fit the question.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:34 AM on March 29, 2006


Inflammable is an interesting case. Some megaboss times I've seen flammable or inflammable it's been printed on a warning label. If you pitch your tent next to the campfire you're not concerned so much with what five random friends think the word means as much as the person who wrote the label / specs for your tent.
posted by Wood at 9:19 AM on March 29, 2006


So according to you, languagehat, even numbers could change their meanings and we shouldn't "bitch and moan"?

What about legal terms? Medical terms? Walk/don't walk signs? There's no such thing as a change in language which makes life substantially more difficult or dangerous, such that the change should be resisted or discouraged?

Surely that can't be your position?

If a witness in court said of someone that they "literally knocked me down", and you were the judge or lawyer, wouldn't you want to ask them what they really meant, now that the word is so ambiguous?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:06 PM on March 29, 2006


Ambrose, what are you even talking about any more?

Have you ever picked up a linguistics text?

Some words are very difficult to change (like pronouns). Some words are not so hard to change (like "literally"). The word "shouldn't" has no place in that discussion, and if you think it does, you have no idea what you are talking about.

English has undergone much more cataclysmic change than a simple semantic reversal of trivial vocabulary. English lost inflection of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, for crying out loud. It went through the great vowel shift, which changed the entire structure of how vowels were pronounced. Hell, English was once upon a time proto-Indo-European. It survived just fine as a method of communication through each and every change, probably with folks like you (and Swift) lamenting it at every step of the way, and dreaming up scary hypotheticals where communication would completely break down (Swift even went so far as to make the ridiculous assertion that in a hundred years no one would understand each other).

At the end of the day, you're getting all riled up over a sentiment that is no more sophisticated that "change is bad." Have fun with that.
posted by teece at 12:44 PM on March 29, 2006


I find it interesting that you never directly answer my questions.

I also find it interesting that you've contributed absolutely nothing to this discussion in terms of the original question.

Here it is again:

evidence of other English words that, over time, have come to mean their own antonyms

I gave what I thought were two interesting examples and commented on a third. I read the Slate article and disagreed with it. I read the M-W entry and commented on it.

You, on the other hand, started off in your very first contribution, doing the thing you've been doing ever since. Patronising and insulting people for holding views which any idiot can tell that they don't actually hold:
people thought it meant "not burnable," but it never did.

That makes no sense, Kirth Gerson. Words mean what people think they mean. They do not have an intrinsic meaning.
For the record, in the hope that it will stop you and languagehat making the same silly assumption about me and talking down to me ... I know that language changes. I'm not a moron. I do not propose, suggest or advocate the creation of a Department of Homelanguage Security which would attempt to stop language changing, and I know it would fail if it did. I'm a descriptivist. Signed this 30th day of March, Year of Our Lord 2006, Ambrose Chapel.

This thread started off with a specific question, about a specific phenomenon (word becomes its antonym) and a particular poster's anguish that a dictionary had now listed that antonym as one of the meanings. You came into the thread and started singing your favourite refrain, "language changes, deal with it".

You're about as useful as those people who go into threads where people are having Windows problems and post "should've got a Mac! : )".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:52 PM on March 29, 2006


I also find it interesting that you've contributed absolutely nothing to this discussion in terms of the original question.


Read the thread again. You missed some comments.
posted by teece at 2:48 PM on March 29, 2006


OK, not absolutely nothing.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:27 PM on March 29, 2006


Well, this discussion has sure been inflammatory.
posted by breath at 4:00 PM on March 30, 2006


I literally love pancakes
posted by azuma at 6:04 PM on March 30, 2006


execute: to kill
execute: to begin or carry out.
posted by azuma at 6:06 PM on March 30, 2006


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