Monday, July 7, 2008

literally, technically

Semantic bleaching is something that happens all the time. In fact, I just used it: I don't mean that at every infinitesimal moment in time semantic bleaching is occurring; I merely mean that it is not uncommon to see its effects. Essentially semantic bleaching is the lessening of the force of a word. For instance, even "extremely" these days doesn't mean much. People have an interesting way of dealing with this. One of the strategies I hear most often is to use "literally," as in, "I could literally eat a horse I'm so hungry." Clearly this person does not mean that they desire to sit down and consume an entire horse. What they mean is that we use hyperbole so much in everyday speech that even saying one could eat a horse does not express the extreme hunger that person is experiencing. Hence the use of literally. My professor Tony Mattina proposed that people use "literally" essentially as the opposite of what it actually means: to mean "metaphorically". However, I think the difference is more subtle. Not all the usages I hear are strictly metaphorical. Rather, I think people are using the word "literally" not to mean literally, but simply as an intensifier.

Another (and I believe related) difference in word usage is with the word "technically". On a linguistics forum I frequent a new member posed a question about "technically". He recently voted for candidate A because he did not want candidate B to win. Thus in his mind he was technically voting against candidate B, rather than for candidate A. However, his friend argued with him, saying that since technically it is not possible to cast a vote against a candidate, he technically voted for candidate A. My take on this is that the friend is the correct one, at least in the strictest usage of the word. To me, "technically" refers to procedure, i.e., what is objectively happening at any given moment. Thus if John shoots Bill, technically all he's doing is pulling the trigger of a gun. Of course, if you believe in the slippery slope argument, where do we draw the line? Perhaps I should really say John's brain is firing electrical impulses that cause his index finger to contract.

1 comment:

q-pheevr said...

I agree with you about literally; it seems to me to be undergoing exactly the same kind of bleaching that has happened to truly, really, and very.