Why It's Literally Not Wrong To Say 'Literally'

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 3:14 pm

Many of us feel irked when we hear people speaking "incorrectly." Whether it's using "like" a few too many times, or the word "literally" to mean "figuratively," we have a sense that there is a correct way to speak, and that that isn't it. While new speech patterns might be irritating, the linguist John McWhorter says they can't possibly be wrong. His new book is Words on the Move: Why English Won't and Can't Sit Still (Like Literally).

"It's the nature of human language to change," McWhorter says. "And there's never been a language that didn't do that." This, he says, is how Latin became French. It's how Old English became Modern English. "Nobody wishes that we hadn't developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions," McWhorter says.

This week on Hidden Brain, we'll hear why using "literally" to mean "figuratively" simply makes that word a new contronym (or word that can have two opposite meanings), and how even internet abbreviations like "lol" have evolved over time.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


If you have teenagers or work closely with young people, chances are you've had mystifying conversations like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: L-I-T. It means that it's going to be exciting or fun, and that you should be there. Like, that party's going to be lit.

VEDANTAM: My producer, Maggie Penman, recently went on a slang finding mission in Washington, D.C. She ended up talking to a group of college students from American University.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, turnt (ph) is another one. Like - but like - I don't know - what's turnt? Like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Turnt - it's one of those words that you just can't really define, you just have to use it in the context. Turnt - it's going to be lit. Turnt is used to described lit (laughter) so fun.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It'll be lit at 11 p.m., and it'll be turnt at 1 a.m. And then it'll be ratchet at 2 a.m.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: What's the third one?


PENMAN: Ratchet?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. Ratchet's like, oh, my gosh, everybody's sloppy, this isn't fun anymore. This is just ratchet.

VEDANTAM: Young people have always used language in new and different ways and it has pretty much always driven older people crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: On fleek (ph) is usually used in relation to somebody's eyebrows.

PENMAN: Why? Why? Why eyebrows?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Because eyebrows are a big trend right now. If you have great eyebrows, you're, like, pretty. So that's like the new thing to do, and usually - it's an - it came from Instagram. Whenever somebody - like, I just saw it like five minutes ago on somebody's Instagram. They had great eyebrows. They had obviously just penciled them in. And all the comments were like, O-M-G those eyebrows are on fleek.

PENMAN: Extra E's?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, like, 12 E's at least. The more E's, the better.


VEDANTAM: All of those likes and literallies (ph) and extra E's might sometimes grate on your nerves, but my guest, John McWhorter, says the problem might be with you, not them.

JOHN MCWHORTER: Language is a parade, and nobody sits at a parade wishing that everybody would stand still.


VEDANTAM: John McWhorter is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He's also the author of a new book, "Words On The Move: Why English Won't - And Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)." So this is, like, literally HIDDEN BRAIN, and I'm Shankar Vedantam. This week's episode is going to be lit. It's going to be turnt, and it's going to be on fleek. We hope it's not going to be ratchet.


VEDANTAM: John McWhorter, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

MCWHORTER: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: Many of us have dictionaries at home or at work, John. And you say that dictionaries in some ways paint an unrealistic portrait of a language. They give us a sense that the meanings of words are fixed, when in fact they're not.

MCWHORTER: Yeah. Dictionaries are wonderful things, but they create an illusion that there's such thing as a language that stands still, when really it's the nature of human language to change. Each generation hears things and interprets things slightly differently from the previous one. And, I mean, just in terms of even sounds changing and the way that you put words together changing bit by bit, and there's never been a language that didn't do that.

VEDANTAM: I love this analogy you have in the book where you mention how, you know, thinking that a word has only one meaning is like looking at a snapshot taken at one point in a person's life and saying this photograph represents the entirety of what this person looks like.

MCWHORTER: Exactly. It's as if you saw a person - I'm not going to say at 4 because then the person is growing up, and if I use that analogy then it seems like I'm saying that language grows up or it moves toward something or it develops. Imagine you meet somebody, they're 39 and you take their picture. And then 10 years later when they're 49, you say, well, that picture of you at 39 is what you really are and whatever's happened to you since then is some sort of disaster or something that shouldn't have happened. How come you aren't exactly the way you were 10 years ago? That's the way words are, too. But it's so hard to feel that partly because our brains are on writing, as I say in the book.

We can't help, as literate people, thinking that the real language is something that sits still with letters written all nice and pretty on a page that can exist for hundreds of years, but that's not what language has ever been. Only a couple hundred languages - or if you want to be conservative about it, a hundred languages - are written in any real way and then there are 6,800 others. Language is something that's spoken, and spoken language especially always keeps changing - it's inherent.

VEDANTAM: One of the points you make in the book of course is that the evolution of words and their meanings is what gives us this flowering of hundreds or thousands of languages. Mistakes and errors are what turned Latin into French.

MCWHORTER: Yes, that's exactly true. What we think of today as a word undergoing some odd development or people using some new construction is exactly how Latin turned into French. It's exactly how old English turned into modern English. And I don't think any of us are thinking that it's a shame that we're not using the language of Beowulf.

So I think that nobody would say that they don't think language should change. But what most people mean is that there'll be slang, that there'll be new words for new things and that some of those words will probably come from other languages. But I don't think that it's always clear to us that language has to change in that things are going to come in that we're going to hear as intrusions or as irritating or as mistakes, despite the fact that that's how you get from, say, old Persian to modern Persian. And nobody wishes that we hadn't developed our modern languages today from the ancient versions.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk in the second half of our conversation about why the meanings of words change, but I want to start by talking about how they change. Let's start with the word literally. It turns out, as you point out, that in common usage, literally literally means the opposite of literally.


JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it, it's too high.


ROB LOWE: (As Chris Traeger) Dr. Harris, you are literally the meanest person I have ever met.


VICE PRES JOE BIDEN: In the first days, literally the first days...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Literally stood...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're literally making...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We're literally on the verge...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Not figuratively, it's literally...

MCWHORTER: Yeah. And it irritates people, but it's a different way of seeing literally. If you take literally in what we can think of as its earliest meaning, the earliest meaning known to us is by the letter. And so somebody says something literally, somebody takes a point literally. Well, if you have a word like that and if it's an intensifier of that kind, you can almost guess that literally is going to come to mean something more like just really. So what happens is that once literally comes to feel like it means really, people start using it in figurative constructions such as I was literally dying of thirst. Now, many people hear that and they think, well, that's no good because now literally can mean its opposite. But we have plenty of words like that in English where it doesn't bother us at all. For example, if you take seeds and put them in the ground, that's one thing. But if you seed a watermelon, nobody assumes that you're taking seeds and putting them in the watermelon, you're taking them out.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MCWHORTER: Those are called contronyms, and literally has become a new contronym. It should be thought of as fun.

VEDANTAM: So you make the case that the meanings of words change all the time. It's a bold argument that we should in some ways welcome it when people do their own thing. But I have to say I noticed that you had a book out a few years ago that seemed to say the opposite, and it was titled "Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation Of Language In Music And Why We Should, Like, Care." Does the new John McWhorter have a disagreement with the old John McWhorter?

MCWHORTER: That's a very rich question. And, you know, it's getting to the point where I've been in the business a while and there are decisions I made back in my rollicking 30s which I wouldn't make now.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MCWHORTER: And "Doing Our Own Thing" was one where I allowed a subtitle that I shouldn't have because the publishers thought that that would make it sell better and I think it did. But that book wasn't really about the degradation of language in music. To this day, I hear sometimes that I've written somewhere that rap is terrible music and that it makes people pull their pants down and kill each other. And I think a lot of it is because of just the music in that subtitle, when actually I didn't say anything like that. Actually, a lot of people really hated that book. That book disappointed a lot of people who thought they were going to get something like Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." I never wrote such a book, and there are people mad at me to this day for tricking them by allowing that subtitle.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). One of the things I found really interesting is that the evolution of words and language is constant. So new words are as likely to evolve as old ones. So LOL was an internet abbreviation meaning laugh out loud or laughing out loud, but LOL in common usage today doesn't necessarily mean hysterical laughter.

MCWHORTER: No because LOL was an expression, it was a piece of language. And so you knew that its meaning was going to change, the only question was in which way. And it ended up becoming less a direct reflection of hearty laughter than an indication of the kind of almost subconscious laughter that we do in any kind of conversation that's meant as friendly. It can be almost counterintuitive to listen to how much giggling and laughing you do in ordinary - actually rather plain exchanges with people. It's part of a general running indication that everything's OK between you and the other person, just like one's expected to smile a little bit in most interactions. So LOL starts out as meaning hardy-har-har (ph), but then it becomes something more abstract. But the reason that it seems so elusive is because we don't really think about the, quote, unquote, "meaning" of things like our conversation-easing laughter.


VEDANTAM: We actually also heard this idea from the students Maggie talked to in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We make fun of people who use LOL in text messages, but I see that I'm using it more than ever but more in a sassy way. So if my roommate were to say something along the lines of, can I have the room from 10 to 12 and I'm trying to take a nap? I'll be like, LOL, no. So just to kind of ease it, like, ease the hit of the rejection (laughter). But...

VEDANTAM: As someone who spends a lot of his time listening to language evolve, John hears a lot of slang. He's a defender of language on the move, but I wanted to know if there were things that irritated even him.

MCWHORTER: Oh, yeah, I'm a human being. And so even though I insist that there is no scientific basis for rejecting some new word or some new meaning or some new construction, I certainly have my visceral biases. And so, for example, can I get a hamburger? Can I get some chicken? I've always found that a very grating way to ask for something at a store. It seems kind of elliptical, like, would it be possible that I obtained? And then if you are going to be that elliptical, why use the casual word get? And it sounds a little bit abrupt and grabby like you're going to get something instead of being given. All of these are very subjective things. It's not necessarily may I please have, but may I have, I'll have, but not can I get a. I find it just vulgar for reasons that as you can see I can't even do what I would call defending, it's just how I feel.

And we're all going to have feelings like that. And when I listen to people having their peeves, I don't think stop it. But what I am thinking is, you should realize that even if you don't like it, there's nothing wrong with it in the long run because, for example, Jonathan Swift didn't like it that people were saying kissed instead of kiss-ed (ph) and rebuked instead of rebuk-ed (ph). He didn't like that people were shortening the words. How does that sound now? We don't want to be like that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, I think it might be time for me to confess one of my pet peeves. It has to do with the word momentarily. Growing up, I understood this word to mean for a very short time, as in John McWhorter was momentarily surprised. But I find that people now usually use the word to mean very soon, as in we're going to board the plane momentarily.

The dictionary says both uses are correct. But, you know, John, something gnaws at me every time I hear the word used wrong. And after listening to you, I realize I might have to finally give in. When we come back, I'm going to ask you about why languages change and whether there are hidden rules that shape why some words are more likely to evolve than others. We'll be back momentarily.

MCWHORTER: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. John, you've noted that humans have been using language for tens of thousands of years, but for most of that time language was talking. Writing came along relatively recently. Are the spoken origins of language one reason that words are so often on the move?

MCWHORTER: Yes, Shankar, that's exactly it. Language as it evolved was just talking to an extent that can be very hard for we literate people to imagine. There was no way of transcribing an approximation of what people said and nobody would have thought of doing it. Language was talk. When language was like that, of course it changed - a lot - fast - because once you said it, it was gone. And if people heard the sounds a little differently and produced them a little differently, if there were new meanings of words - very quickly whatever the original meaning was wouldn't be remembered. There was no such thing as looking up what it originally meant. And so language changed just like the clouds in the sky.

But then you start writing things down and you're in a whole new land because once things are sitting there written on that piece of paper, there's that illusion. And it really is an illusion that what language is, is something that sits still. There's a way of speaking right. And the way you speak right is not by speaking the way that people around you in your life speak, but by speaking the way the language is as it sits there all nice and pretty on that piece of paper where its reality exists.

VEDANTAM: Would it be possible to use what we have learned about how words and languages evolve to potentially write what a dictionary might look like in 50 years or a hundred years?

MCWHORTER: You could have fun doing such a thing. The fact is that language change can always go in one of many directions, there's a chance element to it. So you can't know how the words are going to come out, but you can take good guesses. You know, endings are going to tend to drop off. So if you took a bunch of those tendencies, you could make up, say, the English of 50 years from now, but some of the things would just be complete chance. You would never know, for example, that - give you an example I've actually been thinking about. Women under about 30 in the United States, when they're excited or they're trying to underline a point, putting uh at the end of things. And so somebody will say, well, who was it who you thought was going to give you this present? You-uh (ph). And, I mean, really, it sounds exactly like that. I know-uh (ph) is there, or something along the lines of babe-uh (ph).

And as odd as that sounds, I can guarantee you if you watch any TV show with women under a certain age or if you just go out on an American street and listen, you'll find that that's a new kind of exclamatory particle. That is the most random thing. And I would really guess that in a few decades men will be doing it, too. Those sorts things tend to start with women. You couldn't have predicted this I know-uh move-uh (ph). You can't know, but you can certainly know that if could listen to people 50 years from now, they'd sound odd. Something new will have started by then, just like if we listen to people in 1971, they sound odd in that they don't say like as much as we do, that hadn't started then. Imagine how we would sound to them if they could hear us.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (As character) Well, if you're so upset about it, maybe you can think of a way to help her.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As character) Right. You know, lots of people blow off steam about something they think is wrong, but very few people are willing to get involved and do something about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (As character) I'm willing to get involved.

VEDANTAM: So all this raises a really interesting question. You know, we spend years teaching children about how to use language correctly. As someone who works in media, I often find that people who can write well are often people who know how to think well, so I often equate clarity of writing with clarity of thought. How do you balance the imperative of teaching correct usage? Which I think is probably important with the reality that this edifice that you're teaching is constantly crumbling.

MCWHORTER: It's a matter of fashion, pure and simple. People do need to be taught what the socially acceptable forms are. But what we should teach is not that the good way is logical and the way that you're comfortable doing it is illogical. It should just be, here is the natural way, then there's some things that you're supposed to do in public because that's the way it is, whether it's fair or not. And you can even teach people to have a little bit of fun with the artifice. But it's exactly like - it was maybe about 20 years ago that somebody - a girlfriend I had told me that if I wore pants that had little vertical pleats up near the waist, then I was conveying that I was kind of past it. That was somehow a dad's fashion, and that I should start wearing flat-fronted pants. That is utterly arbitrary that those little slits in American society look elderly, but for various chance reasons that's what those slits came to mean, so I started wearing flat-fronted pants.

That is exactly why you should say fewer books instead of less books instead of some situations and, yes, Billy and I went to the store rather than the perfectly natural Billy and me went to the store. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. But I think that we should learn not to listen to people using natural language as committing errors because there's no such thing as making a mistake in your language if a critical mass of other people speaking your language are doing the same thing.

VEDANTAM: You make the case that concerns over the misuse of language might actually be one of the last places where people can publicly express prejudice and class differences. And as you point out, it's not just that people feel that a word is being misused, they often feel angry about it and you think this anger is actually telling.

MCWHORTER: Yeah, I really do. I think that the tone that many people use when they're complaining that somebody says Billy and me went to the store is a little bit incommensurate with the significance of the issue. And I can't help surmising that part of it is that the educated American has been taught - and often well - that you're not supposed to look down on people because of gender, because of race, because of ability. But might we allow that there's probably a part of all human beings that wants to look down on somebody else? What a cynical thing to say, but that doesn't mean that it might not be true. And if that is true, then the educated person can look down on people who say Billy and me went to the store or who are using literally, quote, unquote, "wrong" and condemn them in the kinds of terms that once were ordinary for condemning black people or women or what have you.

So I just think that it's something we need to check ourselves for. It might irritate you slightly to hear somebody say something like I need less books instead of fewer books, but does a person who says that really deserve the kind of sneering condemnation that you often see? Something's off, and I think it's because there's a lowlier part of our nature that grammar allows us to vent in the absence of other ways to do it that have not been available for some decades for a lot of us.

VEDANTAM: One of the ultimate messages I took from your work is that, you know, we can choose to have languages that are alive or languages that are dead, and dead languages never change. And some of us might prefer those, but if you prefer life - the unpredictability of life - then living language in many ways are much more fun.

MCWHORTER: Language is a parade, and nobody sits at a parade wishing that everybody would stand still. If the language stayed the way it was, it would be like a pressed flower in a book, or as I say I think it would be like some inflatable doll rather than a person. I think that it's better to think of language as a parade that either you're watching or, frankly, that you're in, especially because the people are never going to stand still. It's never happened, it's never going to. And if you can enjoy it as a parade instead of wondering why people keep walking instead of just sitting on chairs and blowing on their tubas and not moving, then you have more fun. I want everybody to have the fun I'm having.

VEDANTAM: John McWhorter, thank you so much for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

MCWHORTER: Thank you for having me, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr and our supervising producer Tara Boyle. This week we also want to welcome two new people to our team, our new producer Raina Cohen (ph) and our spring intern Chloe Connelly (ph). We're excited to have them on board. Our unsung hero this week is Casey Herman. Casey's a producer on How I Built This and the TED Radio Hour. In a former life he worked in IT, which is something he never should have told his colleagues. We now bombard him with computer questions. Casey always has a friendly ear if you want to run an idea by someone smart. Casey, thanks for all the help. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you liked this episode, please tell one friend who doesn't know about HIDDEN BRAIN about our show, and tell us on social media whom you've tapped. We're always looking for new people to find the show.

We have another request for you. Have you ever considered making a dramatic change in the way you consume the news? Many people say they've changed how and how much they listen to the news after the 2016 presidential election. If you've ever made a big change in your news habits, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you've changed and how it's affected you. We might feature your story in an upcoming episode that looks at whether there are healthy and unhealthy ways to consume the news. Call and leave us a message at 661-772-7246 - that's 661-77-BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam and this is NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm in a sorority, so I hear everything. This is a new up and coming one, so be ready. LMK is something people used to say in text, yeah, let me know. But now everybody goes, is she really wearing that? Let me know or, like, LMK.




PENMAN: Do you know an undiscovered musician who deserves a break? Well, we have an idea for them. NPR Music is holding a Tiny Desk contest to find one great unsigned musician to play the iconic Tiny Desk concert series and tour the United States with NPR Music. All you have to do is shoot a video of your musical act playing an original song behind a desk and submit it by January 29. Learn more at npr.org/tinydeskcontest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.