02 January 2011

My dear, I was literally metaphorical...

We all have our private irritations and exasperations, which may not be reasonable but are nonetheless real. Many of mine lie in the use of words, and telling which are reasonable and which are not can be a grey area.

Language is, I passionately believe, an evolving thing and we cannot tie it down with rules. Words change their meanings ... get used to it. On the other hand, its richness and complexity rely on the existence of rules ... the rules can (indeed, must) change with time, they can be broken with magnificent effect, but like (to borrow Robert Frost's analogy) a tennis net, we do need them. If they break down entirely, or even change too fast, the glorious moderated anarchy which is language falls apart and becomes a puddle on the floor.

My reason for wittering on like this is, of course, a particular exasperation which has just happened by ... though in this case it's amused me rather than irritating. Over a long period, now, I've noticed (and generally restrained my irritation over) misuse of the word "literally", for example “I was so embarrassed, I literally died!” Today I've heard the converse: “I was so frightened, I was almost metaphorically looking over my shoulder!”

  • "Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." Robert Frost, in an address to students. 1935, Milton, Massachusetts: Milton Academy.
  • "I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down." In an interview with Edward C Lathem, 1966. (Manuscript, part of the boxed Papers of Edward C. Lathem, 1913 - 2009, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA: Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College)


Geoff said...

Just a quick look through a recent Scrabble dictionary and you will see the mess our language is in. Just one example "Leccy" = electricity and "Leccies" must I suppose, mean electricities ??
Many years ago I heard someone describing a man getting angry. " He was waving his arms and ejaculating like mad............."

Julie Heyward said...

[Laughing at Geoff's comment ...]

Just because it's Sunday ... and I kind of like the abuses cited in Felix's complaint ... if I call you "a stuffy old fart" it's kind of boring. But if I go all poetic via creative abuse of the language and say you're "literally a stuffy old fart" it (may) lead to a literal hiccup in the mental process, a certain phoring of the metas, in which one might think "well, what's the non-literal alternative to stuffy and old is or is not metaphorical given cell renewal and one is not entirely without fartal content ..."

Felix said...

Is a "stuffy old fart" congruent with "boring old git"? And do is there an aroma of Brussels sprouts in here...?

Julie Heyward said...

Yes. I mean no. Technically, it's literarilly highly progruent in that if you bore the git, you do get fartal congruence for sure, and but [examining said git's nostrils] yes the sprouts are definitely roaming.