Daily Archives: February 26, 2014

Meaningless

mean·ing·less

[mee-ning-lis] adjective

1. without meaning, significance, purpose, or value; purposeless; insignificant: a meaningless reply; a meaningless existence.

2. some other definition because of rampant misuse.

I heard this come out of a TV during local coverage of this month’s Georgia ice storm:  The crews were literally a Godsend for those who’ve been without power.

Which meant one of two things:  Either this reporter buried the lead, and had literally found proof of the existence of God (and perhaps overlooked an opportunity for a rare, on-the-record interview with the Big Guy); or he had misused the word “literally.”head-explode

Pondering both possibilities, my head literally exploded.

Except — it hadn’t.  Because it turns out that according to Google, Merriam-Webster and Macmillian dictionaries, “literally” no longer literally means “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy”  The word now includes the “informal” definition so often misused by TV reporters and anchors and children of all ages.

Dictionary.com  includes a “usage note” in its definition, explaining how the word is “widely used as an intensifier” that “contradicts the earlier meaning.”  In that spirit, it adds the crowd-pleasing “informal” definition: “in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.”

Which means that there is no longer a word in English that literally means “literally.”  Except for the word that has a definition that literally contradicts itself.

Certainly, English has its quirks.  Why does the word “invaluable” exist, with the same meaning as its linguistic sibling “valuable”?

But “literally” isn’t a quirk, it’s a cause.  Its misuse / overuse has been the subject of parodies and overbearing, opinionated Bud Veazey usage memos.  It new definition is linguistic capitulation, a Chamberlainesque concession to the higher power of the babble and hyperbole of the masses to which we now bow down and call “trending.”

I want to continue to insist on the correct usage of a word for which there is literally no synonym.  The fact that there are now four or more references to which the misuser can point — and correctly tell me that I’m the one who’s wrong — is upsetting from my perch, literally atop a very high horse.

I want to be able to snicker when I hear, as I did during the anointment of Pope Francis, that “Catholics were literally glued to their TVs.”  I did more than snicker when I heard that from an Atlanta TV reporter.  My head literally exploded.

But then, I literally reassembled it.  Turns out that an exploding head isn’t literally the end of the world.