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The L-word, literally speaking.

By GLEN NEWEY [London Review of Books] – People are upset that new lexicons, shaped by web usage, have allowed that fine old English word ‘literally’ to be debased. These complaints have a venerable lineage. They worry that ‘literally’ no longer means only ‘literally’ but signals hyperbole, as in: ‘The restroom attendant was like, literally, the size of a whale.’ We infer the guy was fat, or big. Then the L-word lies to hand, for the smartass reply: ‘Really, literally? I mean, how did he get into the restroom?’ But what does ‘literally’ literally mean? In the just-quoted sentence, you might think the ‘like’ in fact says it were as if he were that big, in which case it’s presumably figurative. Anyway, some whales aren’t that big – baby ones, say. ‘Ah, but he didn’t say a baby whale. He meant one that was colossal.’ One that was colossal in relation to its own kind? If so, maybe that’s what he literally meant about the restroom guy.

It turns out to be pretty awkward to specify how the literal and its implied antonym – the metaphorical, usually, or figurative – line up against each other. In ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense’, Nietzsche glosses the idea of truth via metaphors: as a coin whose face has been worn away through use, or as ‘a mobile army of metaphors’. People talk of literal translations. But it’s not obvious what this is. Is it word for word? Luther reportedly said at the Diet of Worms: ‘Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.’ Would a literal rendering be ‘Here stand I, I can not otherwise’? But this isn’t even English: it’s Googlish. And ‘I can not’ doesn’t mean what ‘I cannot’ means, which is what he’s usually taken to have meant.

As Humpty says to Alice in wonderland, deciding on meanings means deciding who’s boss. Surely, for instance, the meaning’s plain when the government sends out signboard vans telling foreigners to ‘go home’ – or, speaking metaphorically, to fuck off (‘You literally want me to go away and copulate at the same time?’). We all know what is meant – for instance, by ‘home’. Except for those of us who, literally, don’t speak English. And those who, because they left poverty, or forced marriage, or other kinds of servitude, or came to join loved ones, had no home there, but came to find one here. Literally.

Continued at the London Review of Books | More Chronicle & Notices.


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