Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)
by Riley Hall
Have you ever said a word so many times that it starts to lose meaning? If not, use the word “language.” Try and repeat this word to yourself around thirty times and then say it out loud. Does it even sound like a word anymore, or just a mess of letters and sounds? This is a playful and interesting way to think about words being used until their initial meaning is altered; however, this occurs in everyday language much more frequently than we notice. Over time, our language changes, and regardless to what factors are behind this change, we must learn to be open and accepting to it.
In The Power of Babel, John McWhorter describes this phenomena as semantic drift. On page 31, he says that a word’s definition can change slowly over time, with each adjustment straying further from the last, until the old and new meanings are nowhere near the same. I believe that a prime example of semantic change is how we use the word “literally”.
We are all guilty of it, using literally in a manner that is far from literal. “This homework is literally going to kill me”, or “I literally cannot handle this”, when in all reality, doing homework has never actually killed anybody, and most things in life, we can handle. These are two examples of using the word literal in a figurative way. Now this doesn’t exactly make sense, and some might say it is more or less an incorrect way to use it. However, after taking into consideration McWhorter’s explanation, I think it is fair to say that the meaning of the word “literally has simply shifted or expanded.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word literally as “in a literal sense or manner, with exact equivalence, and in a complete accurate way.” This is the very basic and exact form in which literally is used. For example, “I literally got six hours of sleep last night.” Literally is used in the sentence to emphasize the accuracy of the statement. This is how we typically see “literally” being used. However, it also includes the following definition, “- used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible.” This definition supports the use of literally in a figurative sense such as. “I literally turned the house upside down looking for my keys.” This supports the idea that using literally in a figurative way, is not necessarily incorrect.
As a future educator, I believe that it is crucial to be aware of the changes that take place throughout our language. If we are not informed of these alterations in the meanings of words, we might falsely accuse students of incorrectly using words in their writing and speaking. The best way to avoid this, is to ensure we are being open to the diversity and constant changes that take place in the language and dialects we hear in our classrooms.
Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’? (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/misuse-of-literally.
Literally. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally.
McWhorter, J. (2011). The Power Of Babel: a Natural History of Language. London: Cornerstone Digital.
Riley Hall, is a junior studying Elementary Education at Chadron State College. Once she completes her degree, she hopes to teach at the intermediate level somewhere in Western Nebraska.