I’m literally OK with the new meaning of literally


Scumbag Steve, ladies and gents.

I was watching fail videos with my husband one night (I think we started with a music video and fell down the rabbit hole of “suggested” videos) and the person behind the camera (or phone) in one of the videos brayed “Aw shit, yo, I videoed that!” to inform the failer that his nadir had been recorded for posterity.

“I videoed that?” I repeated, disgusted.

I stomped around glowering for days. Videoed, I kept thinking. That’s not a word. You don’t video something. It’s not a verb!

But, I realized, eventually, almost no one actually films anything anymore because virtually no one uses film. We’re all shooting digital. Film, as a verb, is now an outdated word. Video is probably correct now. I wonder, when film movie cameras were new did this happen, too? Did people object to “film” used as a verb? Did old people insist that it was “record on film”  or “shoot on film” rather than, simply, “film”?

(Incidentally, I would still like to know. My Google search for “first use of film as verb” didn’t answer my question.)

But the quandary woke me up to the truth that language evolves (and that I need to get with the program). Remember, folks, Shakespeare wrote all those plays in modern English. (Well, OK, Early Modern English, but not Old English, as some erroneously believe. You want some English you really can’t wrap your head around? Google you some Chaucer – that’s just Middle English. For some straight up nonsense please see Beowulf in its original Old English.)

So, OK, we video people doing stupid shit and put it on the internet now.  I’m cool with that. (Not so cool with the verbization of “YouTube,” though, as in “Before you light that, lemme get my phone so I can YouTube it.” I’m hoping “video” wins out over time.)

But then there’s that “literally” issue. If you aren’t aware of it you’re gonna have to Google it (a verbization I’m totally OK with, as you can see) because I don’t have the patience to get into it.

After accepting the verb version of video into my vocabulary I had to confront the changing face of “literally.” A big help in that department was the fact that so many words we use in one sense today used to have a very different – sometimes completely opposite – established meaning. For instance:

  • Awful – Formerly meant “inspiring awe.” You know, like awe-full.
  • Bully – Once meant “a fine fellow” or “a good friend.”
  • Egregious – One of my favorite words, because I’m all about the hyperbole, this word currently means “incredibly bad” but used to mean “incredibly good.”
  • Facetious – Another word I live by. But it used to mean “urbane” or “well-mannered.”
  • Garble – Formerly meant “to sort out.”

I have had in person, and witnessed in comments sections, some exceptionally heated arguments about the current changes in language in general, and “literally” in particular. Some folks latch onto what they were taught (and painstakingly memorized and were tested on) and cannot let go. I don’t remember any of my teachers telling me that the English I was learning was the be-all and end-all or that my textbook was a bible, but to hear some folks talk about how they learned it you would think that’s what teachers were really saying. I am inclined to think that these people were not actually told that language is static and that the way they were taught to use it was the One True Path of Our Lord and Savior Daniel Webster, but rather that they worked very hard to learn the rules they learned and resent them being overturned in what appears to be a careless, whimsical manner. (Also, I think it’s human nature to distrust change.)

But here’s the truth of it: dictionaries record language, they do not make it. People make language. Not some high council of elite English Majors, but the public at large. Dictionaries cannot keep up with the vernacular. Just because you can’t find my neologism or new use of an old word in your desk dictionary does not mean that I am flaunting* the English language. You may rightly accuse me of making it up as I go, but that’s part and parcel of language and you’d better make your peace with it as I have.

I have decided that I would rather be they guys printing vernacular bibles, not the butthurt asshats trying to stop them.

(But I’m still miffed that no one can ever use “irony” correctly.)

— Amanda

P.S. Bonus points to anyone who noticed my neologism, “verbization.”

P.P.S. I desperately wanted to use this Get Fuzzy strip as my image for this post but was unwilling to pay $60 for permission, so please go look at it yourself for free.

* Though Grammar Girl will tell you otherwise, I can totally use flaunt here instead of flount. Flaunt” and flount have been used interchangeably for so long that most dictionaries list “to ignore or treat with disdain” in the definition of flaunt. Flount has not been used in the vernacular for long enough that as I type this every instance of the word is being automatically underlined by my spellchecker. Flaunt now officially means both “show it off” and “show off your disregard for it”.


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