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.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

15 thoughts on “Meaningless

    1. live apt fire Post author

      My high school European History teacher, a brilliant old woman whose name I’ve forgotten, used to say “literally and figuratively” all the time in lectures, forcing us to distinguish between the two words. Aside from her lecture about a Norwegian king called Harold the Hard Boiled, it was my best takeaway, thirty=plus years later, from that class.

      Reply
  1. Bud Veazey

    I’m cleaning up the mess now where my head literally exploded when I learned of the dictionary’s gutless capitulation. Language evolution is inevitable, but I don’t have to like it. I feel the need to write a memo.

    Reply
  2. Ms. Lala

    I truly, literally LOL’d while picturing, “Catholics were literally glued to their TVs.” Nothing against Catholics, mind you, it could’ve been any group, even old baseball players. Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Og Ogglby

    The dear departed Paul Shields used to say “Now..” before random sentences in his newscasts. The bad habit has returned.

    Reply
  4. arky

    I literally don’t understand why people have bugs up their asses about this. This particular use of “literally” has a perfectly clear and distinct meaning. Saying, “don’t you mean figuratively” just demonstrates what a ridiculous argument it is. Go head and replace literally with figuratively in those sentences; it doesn’t carry the same meaning at all. In this context, “literally” is an intensifier. “Figuratively” is meaningless.

    Are you also going to insist that reporters refrain from saying that a community was “decimated” by a tornado unless precisely one-tenth of the population died in the storm?

    Reply
    1. live apt fire Post author

      Your new definition of literally is precisely the opposite of the old definition, rendering the word an empty adverb. The reason reporters can’t / won’t say “figuratively” is because the phrase that typically follows is a worn-out cliche (“I figuratively have a bug up my ass on this issue”). The use of the word “figuratively” would signal to the viewer that the reporter is about to use a pathetic cliche, whereas “literally” is a pathetic attempt to give heft to a pathetic cliche. Eliminate “literally” from news writing entirely, I say. The word automatically sounds alarm bells, even when it’s used properly.

      Nice example with “decimated.” You taught me something. I’ll never use that word again without a precise measurement.

      Reply
  5. Mike Daly

    I still print our “Memos from the Veazer.” It used to be for interns. Since we can’t have interns anymore, I print it for young reporters and writers.

    Reply

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