Saturday, November 17, 2007

Annan shrugged

The Ridger's recent post about Katie Couric is not based on a prescriptivist argument or a peevish opposition to language change. It's an honest question about why Couric structures her claim the way she does. I'll get back to it in my next post. But for now it sent me down memory lane to a 2005 interview with Kofi Annan.

In that interview with the then UN Secretary General, Couric said to him "you literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders." This was picked-up and bemoaned by bloggers and defenders of literal purity everywhere. It can't be literal they claim. Literal means there is no metaphoric sense to my claim. It means the claim happened in actuality. It means that there is no exaggeration.

Well except that that's not true. Literally has been changing use.

But Couric's claim to Annan is a fun one because she apparently intends to use literal just as the peevologists would have her use it. She is claiming that the entire world is literally Annan's concern. Saying to others 'you have the weight of the world on your shoulders' is usually an observation that their duties are onerous. That they feel great pressure. And we exaggerate the scope of their concerns. When someone is worried about everyone in the office or every problem at the school or every crime reported on the local news we call the reach of their cares 'the world': even tho it's not it might as well be because it's beyond their control.

So I'm going to give Couric a pass on this one (as if passes are mine to give and withhold). When she added "literally" she signaled that the scope she mentioned was not an exaggeration. Yes -- there was still some synechdoche: calling all the people on earth "the world" -- there was still some metaphorical figuring: political concerns being "weight"; and his "his shoulders" used as an image of his awareness of those concerns -- but not everything in the statement has to be free of metaphor. There is a literal sense still at work in the claim worth calling literal: his concerns were global in nature. He had within his job description the responsibility for decisions and policies that affected every nation on this planet.

'Literalness' is a problematic claim. Metaphors can be live or dead. A word can have a persistent implication of proper and extended usage. But metaphors will often settle in and become part of a word's commonly assumed meaning in ways that used to be merely figurative. To "handle stress" no longer sounds like much of a metaphor because 'handle' has broken away from a strict meaning of 'to manipulate and manage with one's palm and phalanges.'

Literally on cloud 9 - Probably not actually up there. But very clearly and unambiguously elated.

Literally climbing up the walls - Mr Parker perhaps. Everyone else would probably mean that the agitation was enough to cause excessive movement and frantic motion.

Literally losing his mind - If he's mentally ill some would say this works. Others will hold it accountable to a second level of literalness claiming that there is still gray matter in the skull and activity in the brain. so...

Literally going crazy - Fine right? The drudges will point out that 'going' means moving somewhere so he might be becoming crazy but he's not actually moving anywhere in a crazy manner. (Really. Those people are out there.)

Literally strong as an ox - Unlikely but possible. Certainly could be stronger than some ox. A weak and anemic little baby ox? So the pedants will demand proof.

Literally ran out of gas - Another one that might encourage some to find levels of literalness. It's story time:

If someone is working on a task and gets tired and she says 'I literally just ran out of gas' she might mean that she really had to stop.

So Peevy-1 comes along and says 'Nonono--you don't run on an internal combustion engine so you couldn't run out of the same fuel that allows an automobile to run.'

The next week Peevy-1 is on the highway and his car sputters. Telling the story he says 'I literally just ran out of gas' and Peevy-2 says 'Nonono--your car ran out of gas. You don't run on gas.' Peevy-1 thinks about it and loves the correction. (They're all grammar masochists.)

Peevy-2 is bragging about this to the English class she teaches so she instructs her students 'If you say literally you have to say my car literally ran out of gas.'

A hand shoots up from the front row and and Peevy-3 (a promising young student) says 'but was the car "inside" a bunch of fuel and did the car actually "run" with two legs "out" of that body of fuel? It didn't "literally" "run" "out of" gas.' (The student uses 'air quotes'.)

Does peevy-2 realize that this is spinning out of control? Or does peevy-2 say 'You are going to make a great English teacher one day.'

image from here


  1. The "literally" thing used to really bother me, but then I learned that it bothered a lot of people. That was enough for me to let the issue go. It's like a band you like until they get popular... "Hey man, I was angry about "literally" before it was cool..."

    I'm sure you know about this, but just in case, here is a blog dedicated to your topic:

  2. "Literally" is just the new "really", I think.

  3. "Lift him out,' said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit.

    - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 1839

  4. eplough: I tend to approach things that same way. I was a peevologist for a while. Then I saw how easily that view gets old and indefensible.

    ridger: I think so. Something like really or truly. It's not quite like very altho the sense 'in actuality' was there for both.

    goofy: It's a wonderful quote. If only Dickens had learned how to use this language right?

    I love it when the 'using the language carefully and effectively' argument is handed right back at the prescriptivists.

    Maybe if they could have edited some of Dickens' and Shakespeare's writing those poor struggling writers would have contributed something beautiful to the language. ...a shame.


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