Got your attention, didn’t I? Actually, I just want to highlight a couple of posts at Matthew Yglesias (thanks to Jeremy Osner for sending me there).

Slut, Slut, Slut… [scroll down to Mar. 2] links to several bloggers “discussing whether or not ‘it’s liberating to be a slut’ was the message of Sex and the City” and says “pardon me for being such a fuddy-duddy here but I really don’t think ‘slut’ is a word people should use.” Well, pardon me for being a wild-eyed permissive logophile, but I don’t like the very concept of “words that shouldn’t be used.” Words, like anything else, should be used with caution, but every word has its place. It’s too bad people are offended by words, but the price of avoiding all possible offense is too high.

2) On the other hand, I stand side by side with my brother-in-arms Matthew in decrying the common misuse of “Literally.” I can’t better his formulation:

This is a classic complaint, but last night around 7PM after the Vermont polls closed, Judy Woodruff said that Howard Dean “literally started a wildfire in American politics.”… Suppose Dean had gone out on the campaign trail and done an event on—say—environmental policy out in the woods somewhere. Suppose there was then some kind of electrical accident with the sound-amplification equipment which caused sparks and a fire. One would want to report the fact that “Howard Dean started a wildfire on the campaign trail.” Since “wildfire” is often used metaphorically in political contexts it would be nice to somehow indicate that you mean he really and truly started an actual wildfire. One good way to do this would be to say “Howard Dean literally started a wildfire.” This move—indicating that you mean something literally when, given the context, you might have meant it metaphorically—becomes unavailable when people use “literally” as a meaningless intensifier.

I anticipate the objection “But LH, you are a wild-eyed permissive descriptivist, who thinks usage is all!” That’s true, in general, but everything has exceptions, and this is one. We’re not talking about extending semantic fields, or tweaking traditional grammar a bit—we’re talking about taking a word whose only, and vital, meaning is ‘not metaphorically’ and using it to mean ‘metaphorically.’ It’s even worse than the ruination of disinterested, because there are other ways to express that sense; the only way to replace literally is with some labored periphrasis like “…and I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense!” So stop it, all of you, you hear me?

Sigh. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, but I had to get that off my chest. We will now resume our normal disinterested descriptivism.

Update (Aug. 2022). I find I am no longer bothered by that use of “literally.” Tempora have changed my mores.


  1. My way of dealing with the “literally” issue is simply never to use the word — to me it is tainted and always sounds bad — seeing it in a sentence just prompts me to do a double-take. As far as a substitute word, I don’t find a lot of call for one… I guess I have used “actually” from time to time, and perhaps even “verily”. But that was just me being mannered.

  2. Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

  3. RE: SLUT
    I quite literally never use the word. Not since I read a quote from Shenstone in SOED:
    She’s ugly, she’s old,.. And a slut, and a scold.
    Some things are just too near the truth. Literally.

  4. This usage seems particularly obnoxious; I think this is partly attributable to its popularity with media types who have only a small concern for accuracy in all respects.

  5. Ex-C.Bloggerfeller says

    Bring back slatterns. Where did they all go?

  6. I will agree that “literally” in its figurative, hyperbolic sense is vastly overused, and like any trendy, faddish overuse, is to be tsked and clucked and frowned upon and generally speaking Not Done. But its use in a figurative, hyperbolic sense does not in and of itself damage the meaning of the word: it’s clear to anyone with an ounce of sense (and, perhaps, a smidge of charity) that what’s meant is, “The event in question so completely and totally embodied the metaphor I’m using, it might as well have been literal! Wow!” –Matt’s example does not sway me one whit. The very next sentence of the piece would make it quite clear what had happened: “Howard Dean literally started a wildfire on the campaign trail today. An electrical short in his PA equipment ignited a patch of pine needles, which…” (The headline would also serve as a clue-by-four, were one merely grazing a simple RSS feed, and not catching much but this first, lone, isolated sentence.) Whatever efficiency might be lost in information transmission due to the two possible meanings of the sentence is, I think, offset by the wryness of the smiles that would leap to the lips of readers everywhere–at least, those not quite so bent out of shape over literally’s misuse.
    We could, perhaps, move on to debate the responsibilities of a writer or speaker in a world that is quite clearly bereft of both sense and charity. –But that’s a kettle of fish of a different color.
    (Also: I think you’ll have much more success in your campaign if you stress the “everybody’s doing it, it’s trendy and faddish, so cut it out” angle over the “thou shalt not because you’ll break the word” angle. People get mulish and recalcitrant at thou shalt nots.)

  7. Yes, choir here.
    “Literally” brings me out in a rash, metaphorically speaking.
    “Slut” is a terrible word for me, it was one of my mother’s pet terms of abuse.
    “Hoyden”, however, which is what my grandmother called me, has less sting to it. More of a woody word than a tinny word. Although it has undertones of sluttishness.

  8. Ambrose Bierce, in a less-humorous precursor to The Devil’s Dictionary called Write it Right (full of amusing presciptivist recommendations almost all of which are now moot) defines “literally” as “figuratively, as in ‘the pond was literally full of fish,'” plus another example I can’t remember off-hand. (I used to have a copy, but gave it away.) It was published in 1909, so this is not a new complaint. One the one hand, the “true” meaning of “literally” doesn’t seem to have been completely lost in the past hundred years. On the other hand, people seem more and more oblivious to the social and psychological dangers of excessive literalism,if the growth of various forms of fundamentalism are any guide. They are literally taking over the world!
    A Google search shows that someone just started a weblog based on Write it Right last Sunday:

  9. I thought ‘slut’ meant something like slattern or slovenly woman – sinkful of dishes, clothes all over the floor etc.
    Just as ‘bitch’ (apart from female dog) used to mean “manipulative gossip”.
    Now apparently they both mean some similar, undifferentiated form of whoring. It gets more boring.

  10. Hat, you might wander over to Crooked Timber where they have thread on a (very) garbled survival of Celtic numerals used for counting sheep and for nursery rhymes.
    One nice effect of banning certain words is that they would regain some of their power. For most people these days, “fuck” for example has a power ranging from none to mildly annoying all the way up to fully annoying. You can hardly use it anymore to silence a drawing room, or to incite serious violence. Profanity-inflation.

  11. Kip: You’re probably right about the effect of “thou shalt nots,” and I agree that if the word were only occasionally used as emphatic spicing I wouldn’t be so bothered by it. But I can’t remember the last time I saw or heard it used in its proper sense, and that brings out the Old Testament firebrand in me.
    zizka: Yes, that’s one unfortunate side effect of the loosening of repression. No sin, no fun.

  12. ben wolfson says

    Ted Cohen occasionally tells a story about betting a friend of his that “literally” could be used to mean literally or metaphorically (presumably with some check on recursion). They consulted the OED, which does record the metaphorical usage (since 1863) but says it’s a mistake, so they couldn’t decide who won.
    Zizka: reminds me of an entry from Lichtenberg’s Waste Books: “What a pity it isn’t a sin to drink water”, cried an Italian, “how good it would taste”.

  13. Slag has got to be worse than slut.

  14. joe tomei says

    Shouldn’t that be profanity _deflation_?

  15. “Skank” is worse yet. I’ve also heard the adjective form “rasty”, which means about the same as “skanky”, but there’s no noun form and there’s no special connection to lewd women (which “skank” does have).
    Well, economically it’s inflation, but the profanities themselves are pretty deflated. Same way — if you devalue the currency, the new devalued dollars are worth much more than the old inflated dollars.

  16. Mark, I wouldn’t say bitch and slut are synonyms, unless one is just using them for mysogynistic effect… or rapping.

  17. It’s worth keeping a word that serves to indicate: “Real life has so perfectly imitated cliche that you might think I’m speaking metaphorically. I’m not.”
    How often do those chances really arrive? When they do, I want that one perfect word to bring to bear.

  18. My rentmate says “I’m not just an anglophile, I’m an anglo-slut,” and occasionally announces “slut-stuff on teevee” by which she does not mean Sex and Geography.
    As Jeremy Osner hints, some words are so abused that even when used appropriately they seem wrong. Some words always make me uncomfortable for this reason: hoard and horde, located, aggravate.

  19. Surely there’s a distinction to be made between grammatical prescriptivism and disapproval of maledicta? Particularly maledicta which enforce social norms which one disapproves of on moral grounds?
    I’ll cop to the same inconsistency you seem to have confessed to: I think linguistic prescriptivism is a terrible, terrible thing unless I do it. But I think the dislike of, say, the misuse of the word “literally” is different from an objection to “slut” or other words I don’t even want to type where Google might associate them with my name, such as the N-word.
    I have some sympathy for people who are stingy with their maledicta and especially people who disapprove of racial or sexual attack words. At the same time, there’s the contrary strategy of the “slut liberation” crowd: by embracing a word of abuse, a community can remove its sting and turn its power around. In some cases a word can be pretty nearly fully rehabilitated, as has happened to “queer”. In others it can be used with pride by an in-group while still being off-limits to those outside the group, like the hip-hop use of “n—–“.
    So I’d say that whether one “should” use the word “slut” depends on what you’re trying to do with it.

  20. Well, exactly. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that we should all go around using every possible word; anyone who feels certain words aren’t for them (whether because of hopeless abuse, as Anton says, or distaste, or any other reason) should avoid them. But they should stop there, and not go around saying nobody should use them. Your wretched refuse may be my glorious yawp.

  21. scarabaeus stercus says

    As most of this crowd [obtaining the blessings and the accoutriments of broad brainwashing] , do appear to be literaly literate, I would have expected them to be bored with elementary basic Anglo-saxon monosyllabic utterances, why not use the more descriptive multi-syllable words or expressions that would make the recipients of a cutting tongue, stop and ponder, allowing the “Put down” to sink into the Victim’s cranium. From one uncouth,[non] macadamia, indoctus heathen.chaio

  22. My take on “literally” is that people usually mean “virtually” but assume the two to be synonymous, and choose the one that rolls easier from the tongue. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but it does make sense of the problem. (If someone has already mentioned this, I apologise; I didn’t have time to read every comment.)

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