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Literally the Worst Definition of a Word Ever
Stop using 'literally' figuratively!
Ours is a cultural and linguistic moment obsessed with irony.
For just that reason, people need to stop using the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'. I am not the first to say this. Yet the point failed to sink in. Worse, prompted by the addition of the non-literal sense of 'literal' to several dictionaries, including the Oxford Enflish Dictionary Online, the usage is getting even more accepted.
The situation is also getting worse because the flames are being fanned by several reactionary articles which claim that the usage which means 'figuratively' is perfectly legitimate. They make this claim based on three lines of reasoning: That the usage is very old, that nobody actually gets confused by the two meanings, and that language evolves naturally and we must simply describe it and conform to it, rather than judge it or make prescriptions for it.
I will describe precisely why this usage is a bad thing for the language. But first, because all of the above arguments are faulty, I want to take the time to point out why:
This point tends to be the primary data used to make the non-literal use of 'literally' look legitimate to detractors. Why the hell does this matter to anyone? What is so much more authoritative about English-speakers of centuries past than those from this century? We do not claim that modern doctors should include a medical procedure in a modern textbook because doctors did so in 1759.
Sure, those who, like me, decry the usage at issue tend to associate it with younger speakers who are diluting the language with their text-speak. But isn't that a legitimate complaint? Original date of usage aside, no one is denying that this usage has exploded in popularity recently, largely due to young people who are not, so to speak, of the lettered classes. So should we really be formalizing our conventional language around people whose most thoughtful comment on a dictionary would be TL;DR?
I say they aren't even invited to the convention.
Bad Reason 2: "And anyway," they say, "it does not devalue the primary definition of the word or the value of the English language at large because one would have to be an idiot to confuse which sense of the word is being employed."
There are a few things wrong with this.
For one, it assumes the faulty premise that only genuinely misunderstanding the meaning of usage indicates a problem with it. That isn't the case. The primary stylistic problem with the non-literal 'literally' is that, though hearers can sort out which usage is being employed, that sorting is jarring.
For example, if I hear that "he literally broke my heart" or that "Transformers 2 is literally the worst thing ever" my brain goes in places that the speaker doesn't want it to go. Now, of course I am going to extrapolate the intended meaning from context. But noting only that ignores the fact that somebody who is trying to express themselves to me more, rather than less, accurately by being figurative has failed. Instead he or she made me visualize the rending of cardiac tissue, or made me compare genocides to blockbusters. It's just not good communication.
(And anyway, the non-literal usage of "literally" is just so damned dramatic. It comes from our worst, most unpleasantly exaggerative linguistic instincts; Quoth a girl I walked by recently: "If I got the wrong shampoo, I'm literally going to kill myself.")
But the bigger problem with this Bad Reason 2 is that it simply isn't true. This reasoning ignores the possibility and the likelihood of people's "talking at cross purposes." That can be a huge mistake. For example: I once heard two very smart people (both, in fact, versed in the philosophy of language, from which the phrase 'sense of a word' comes) have a conversation, which was a fierce disagreement about the artistic merits of a band, for almost ten minutes. Only after that long did they determine that they were each discussing entirely different bands!
So yes, context is a vital and informative part of understanding words, but it is careless to assume that subtleties will never, ever get lost in translation. This inevitable phenomenon even has a historical name, The Inscrutability of Reference (which phrase means nothing more and nothing less than "Our inability to know precisely what the hell each other are talking about").
Bad Reason 3: "All that the maker of a dictionary can do is record uses that come into being organically. We cannot tell people what is and is not 'correct,' because the concept of correct does not even apply to language usage. The job of the dictionary editor/linguist/lexicographer is only to observe and record."
This is the old canard that because language evolves, it is somehow elitist and morally wrong to try to formalize certain usages of language as legitimate while writing others off as illegitimate. Holders of this view are called Descriptivists, while holders of the opposite are called Prescriptivists.
I do not propose to make the case for Prescriptivism writ large here, because I can just as well defeat this point on Descriptivist terms. (If you do want to see that discussion borne out, I highly recommend David Foster Wallace's classic essay "Authority and American Usage", though for the love of god ignore the footnote about Wittgenstein's private language argument, which is all wrong.)
So I have this question for the Descriptivists who draw an Is from an Ought by saying that language evolves, and can therefore never be rightfully subject to authority: In what sense are the efforts of a Prescriptivist dictionary editor to formalize or ban a word not part of that very linguistic evolution that you cheer on? If everybody is supposed to have a part in the organic evolution of a living, breathing language, why not understand this as the elites, in their own snooty way, doing just that?
A language is better the more things it can say clearly. It should allow us to communicate what we mean. We need the primary definition of 'literally' to be left alone, because without it, we don't have any other way to say that thing.
Irony is the use of words expressing something other than their literal intention. I chose to open this article by noting that this is a moment in which irony is a cultural fixation. You might have wondered why I think that is relevant.
It's relevant because having one word, 'literally', which word is exempt from ironic usage, allows us to talk about that very obsession. It allows us to demarcate irony from non-irony. The non-literal definition of 'literal' makes English smaller.
Need proof? Simply consider how many times I have just had to employ the clunker of a phrase "the non-literal usage of "literally.'" (Tellingly, I stole the phrase from one of the articles arguing against me.)
We can see, then, that at the very best, using 'literal' figuratively needlessly complicates things. At worst, it lessens the very power of the language to describe. We can therefore see why we need to eliminate this language from our speech and from our dictionaries. Describing is all languages do!
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.