Is It Time to Say Goodbye to “Literally”?

Not LiterallyThe word “literally” is most troubling to me. And I believe it may be time for us to bid it a fond farewell.

I am something of a connoisseur of grammar snobbery. I hate grammar snobs, but it is fun to keep note of what little things drive them crazy. A friend of mine recently used the word “principal” in an email where he meant “principle.” I saw no reason to alert him to the error, because I’m sure he does know the difference. I make these kind of mistakes all the time myself. I constantly find myself typing “their” when I mean “there.” And even more bizarre, “their are” when I mean “they’re.”

Such errors can indicate ignorance, but they almost never do. I went through a short period where I repeatedly spelled “throne” as “thrown.” A reader kindly alerted me. But it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to spell the word. It’s just that I use the word “thrown” all the time and “throne” almost never. And I literally didn’t even think about it. But had George RR Martin put out a book called A Game of Throwns, my mind would have gone on tilt.

Literally!

One of the greatest of the pedant’s concerns is the word “literally” when it is used to mean “not literally.” For example, “His suitcase literally weighed a ton.” Unless we are talking about some curious event out of a Discworld, that suitcase did not weight a literal ton. The speaker means to say that the suitcase was really heavy. More to the point, “His suitcase figuratively weighed a ton.” But that there is a sentence that no one could love.

For a long time, as a writer, I’ve been very careful with the word. I try only to use it in its old sense. But now I think it is best to get rid of it.

The problem for the grammar pedant is that the dictionary definition of “literally” does, in fact, include the meaning, “not literally; figuratively.” Now I know what the pedants answer back with when this is pointed out, “Just because something has been done wrong a long time doesn’t make it right!” But they are wrong. Just look at our language! It is mostly a collection of things done wrong for a long time. That’s what languages are — unless they are Esperanto. Really! You think Latin is perfect. Ha!

I’ve written about this subject before, Why “Literally” Normally Means “Not Literally.” So it might seem strange that I’m bringing it up again. But I was reading an article by Brian Beutler Saturday morning, Will Marco Rubio Finally Be Tested? And in that article, he wrote the dastardly sentence, “Over the past several months, Rubio has: introduced a tax plan that literally zeroes out investment and inheritance taxes…”

Beutler is a good writer and what he means is that Rubio introduced a tax plan that in fact cuts these taxes to zero. In other words, he used “literally” to mean, well, “literally.” But I still had to take a moment and think, “Does he mean literally literally or figuratively literally?” This is not his fault! But the word has become poisoned to such an extent, that my assumption is that the writer means “figuratively.” And that’s bad news for the “correct” use of the word.

For a long time, as a writer, I’ve been very careful with the word. I try only to use it in its old sense. But now I think it is best to get rid of it. It’s just one more intensifier in a language that is quickly becoming nothing but. What are we to do? It’s just confusing at this point, and I doubt very seriously that the old definition will last the century.

There’s another problem with the word anyway: it isn’t necessary. Beutler could have written, “Over the past several months, Rubio has: introduced a tax plan that zeroes out investment and inheritance taxes…” No need for “literally.” Just the same, so much of writing is not strictly necessary. In that sentence, Beutler was using the word as an intensifier — to drive home the extreme nature of what Rubio is proposing. But there are other ways to do that. I think “amazingly” and “unbelievably” would work better.

So maybe we can all get by without our little friend “literally.” I’m going to try.

Eric Cantor and the Mediocrity of the Successful

Eric CantorI first started reading Jonathan Chait not because of his analysis (which is usually pretty good) but because he’s a damned funny guy. But he doesn’t show it off as much as he used to. But yesterday, he was in fine form, Eric Cantor Shocked by Trump’s Victory, Also Everything That Has Ever Happened. Mike Allen had reported that Cantor made a bet that Trump would not win a single primary. Well, Trump has now won a primary. And it’s kinda hard to see how he doesn’t win at least a few more. In fact, he looks really good to win the nomination.

The joke in Chait’s article is that Eric Cantor has this habit of being horribly wrong about just about everything. When he lost his primary back in 2014, his internal polling apparently indicated that he was ahead by 34 percentage points! Can you imagine? It shows a shocking lack of management. Who did he have running his campaign? Did he have no ears on the ground checking to see if the folk were restless?

Not only this, Cantor lost a whole bunch of money in 2010 because he bet that interest rates would go up. Well, as pretty much any economist would have told him at the time: interest rates would stay low as long as the economy was weak. But among conservatives it was just “known” that inflation was going to go wild because stimulus blah blah blah and printing money blah blah blah. But how could Eric Cantor know? He was only House Majority Leader. It’s not like he was a sophisticated person.

Well, Chait brilliantly put together the absurdity that is Eric Cantor:

But now, Cantor, freed from Congress, is working for an investment firm called Moelis & Company: “Whether you are looking at Washington DC proper, the northern Virginia technology corridor or some very well-known companies based in Maryland, these firms need innovative, independent banking advice and Moelis & Company is well positioned to provide it.” So people who want to bet their money on Cantor’s ability to see the future know where to go.

Eric Cantor Is Typical

Here’s the thing: Eric Cantor is not exceptional in being a hugely successful mediocrity. He is the rule. Cantor comes from money. But his success is mostly due to the typical kind of guy who is smart enough to get through college but socially stunted to the point of fitting in perfectly at Phi Sigma Kappa. And once you are a member of the club, well, you are set. A lot of people thought he got his $3.4 million job because of services rendered. I don’t really think so. I think it’s more the other way around: as a guy who was part of the club that knew despite his incompetence that he would get a multi-million dollar job offer, he just naturally did the bidding for his friends.

This is what continues to amaze me about America. So many people think this is a meritocracy. It is not at all. The vast majority of traditionally successful people I know are mediocrities. People are surprised when a successful businessman makes a boneheaded mistake. But the error these people make is in thinking that “success” in our plutocracy has much of anything to do with intelligence or even being successful. Because people like Eric Cantor will be successful — regardless of how many chances they have to be given.

Anniversary Post: Emperor Jimmu and National Foundation Day

Emperor JimmuHappy National Foundation Day everyone! Don’t know what it is? Neither did I. Supposedly, on this day in 660 BCE, Emperor Jimmu founded Japan. You might question this given that he was supposed to have lived from 711 BCE to 585 BCE, which would have made him 126 years old when he died, which is over three years older than the oldest person who ever lived (that we can verify). It’s also about two years older than what seems to be the theoretical maximum age of humans due to cell regeneration. Just the same, no one seems to actually believe that Emperor Jimmu lived to be that old.

In the Kojiki, oldest extant history of Japan dating back to the early 8th century, it says that Emperor Jimmu was a real guy. That’s a long time between event and history, however: roughly 1,400 years. Plus, the Kojiki is where we get the 126 year lifespan. And in the Nihon Shoki (written a decade after the Kojiki), it tells us his reign was from 660 BCE to 585 BCE. That’s a reign of 75 years! And one that started when he was 51?! Kind of old to be conquering countries. So clearly, by that time, much myth had been introduced into the story. And it strikes me as fanciful. But any reason for holiday is good by me!

Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) is said to have started the Chinese civilization back about 2700 BCE. And he just so happen to reign for a century. Of course, there is no doubt that he is mythical. He only started being referred to as a historical figure some 2,500 years after his supposed rule. He appears to have been a god that was later historicized.

Emperor Jimmu: Real Myth?

But Emperor Jimmu could have been a real guy, just papered over with myth. But you have to follow the list of emperors roughly a thousand years before you start to see anything that looks normal: short rules, reasonable life lengths. The supposed 11th emperor at the beginning of the first century, Suinin, supposedly ruled for 41 years and died at the age of 138. Not that it makes sense to try to make sense of it, but that would mean he became emperor at the age of 97.

Regardless, myth is important. But there is a down side to this kind of thing. It gives the impression that Japan was started by someone. And that isn’t true. Even people who fetishize George Washington understand that he didn’t found the United States — that it is the result of an entire social movement, centuries in the making. At least, I hope they do.