Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Definitions that, Literally, Need to Die

Thanks to John Scalzi, I learned last night that dictionaries are starting to add "Figuratively" to the definition of the word "Literally." Or to put it another way, because so many people are, literally, using the word in a way that is exactly opposite of what it means the dictionaries are giving up and changing the definitions.

 This has spurred me to go after a short list of "definitions" that I would happily shoot with a phasor set to "Shake and Bake."

 Gay vs Stupid, Silly or Lame

I hear this from my students and it simply drives me nuts. "This test is so gay." I'm sorry, Student003, but a test cannot be gay. It doesn't have a sexual preference. It doesn't get together with other tests and make little quizzes together.

 If you want to say "I went to my cousin's wedding and it was so gay" here are some acceptable statements that can follow:

  •  "My cousin and his new boyfriend look so cute as a married couple."
  •  "Everyone was giddy and happy and we all danced and laughed like we did not have a care in the world." 
  • "The decorations were all rainbow pride flags." 
  • "I was the only person there attracted to the opposite sex." 

 What is not acceptable is to follow it with "I was so bored I couldn't wait to leave."

 Yet somehow this idea has become locked into our culture, that it's okay to use "Gay" as a negative label.

 Can vs May

 Here's one of my favorite exchanges at work:
Student004: Can I go to the bathroom?
 Me: I hope so. Inability to clear your body of waste can lead to serious medical conditions. 

 Over time we have dropped the word May as a way of seeking permission and substituted in Can which is supposed to reference ability. Perhaps this comes from the idea that the only limitations we see for ourselves are those imposed by what we are able to do, rather than what an outside force gives us permission to do. 

What happened to the playground game "Mother May I?" with its lovely and constant reminder of the proper word for permission? Should we stay saying "Just because you can doesn't mean you should" and replace it with "Just because you can, doesn't mean you may"? Have we given up on the idea of permissions all together and simply embraced, finally, the "if it feels good (and you're able to), do it"?

 Literally vs Figuratively 

 This is sheer laziness and a pure desire to look smarter than one is. "I'm going to, literally, bash his face in with a frying pan." This is not a metaphorical statement of anger, it's an actual real threat. You are saying that you really do intend to bash someone's face with a frying pan.

 If you're going to say "Literally" in that context then you:
 a) need a frying pan
 b) need to have plans to bash someone's face in.

 And to be a true statement, when you do see that person, you need to make good on your statement and actually bash his face in. If you don't then your threat of violence, your literal statement of intent is just some figurative expression of anger.

 To put it another way, you should have said "I'm going to, figuratively, bash his face in." But that takes thought. You actually have to, oddly enough, know what the words you are using mean. You have to, literally, know the proper use of the word Literally.

Rob Osterman is the author of the popular web novel Bastion: The Last Hope.  Its story follows those few who struggle to survive through the end of days and perserve what remains of humanity.  He also writes Mind the Thorns, a reader directed web novel chronicling the death and life of Regan Fairchild:  Accountant, Bachelorette and Vampire.

His first novel, Fantasti*Con follows Allison Cavanaugh on a weekend of geekery gone awry as she is stalked, followed, harassed and worse.  It is available on Amazon in print and eBook editions.

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