Literally doesn’t literally mean literally anymore.
Having had its literal meaning habitually perverted by children and illiterates (i.e., the same segments of society that, as per Prof. William Strunk of The Elements of Style-fame, are apt to think inflammable means not combustible) over so many years, dictionaries, always struggling to strike a balance between their prescriptivist vs. descriptivist inclinations, have begun to cave to popular usage and list “figuratively,” “virtually,” and “in effect” among the definitions of literally. Not merely introducing a heretofore unrelated line of meanings, these novel definitions represent the very concept the term literally was intended to contrast with, thus turning literally into a contranym, a word with at least two meanings that contradict one another.
Words often change meaning over time, a process known as semantic drift. Sometimes, a word loses its original meaning in favor of a new one, as was the case with silly, which used to mean blessed but now only means, well, silly. These days, it sounds odd and disrespectful, indeed plainly wrong, to refer to the Virgin Mary as “silly”—unless, of course, you are recounting an episode in which the vaunted virgin disported herself in a goofy manner.
Other times, the change comes in the form of an expansion of the original or literal meaning of a word, the word literally itself providing a case in point: it still means literally but has expanded to include the meaning of figuratively. So next time you hear or read that a certain individual literally jumped in the lake, from a strictly semantic perspective you’ll have no way of knowing whether an actual dive into an actual pondlike and water-filled depression ever took place, or if said individual merely turned tail across dry land without sustaining as much as a splash of wetness on his wingtips.
Likewise, someone who has, or has had, sexual intercourse with his mother is, quite literally (in the traditional sense of the word), a motherfucker. (I told you this post contained language.)
In practice, however, we regularly apply this term to any despicable individual whether or not he has ever engaged in, or plans to ever engage in, the very behavior the term so bluntly denotes. We use the term to describe a person of such reprehensible character he might as well be having sexual relations with his dam. We surely wouldn’t be surprised if he did (in addition to whatever behavior or trait of his that prompted us to apply the term in the first place).
As far as day-to-day usage, the literal meaning of motherfucker has long become irrelevant to its utility as a catchall term for anyone—specifically, to any male (I’ve rarely heard the term applied to woman; nor cocksucker, for that matter, although the latter seems much more applicable to both sexes than does the former, at least from an anatomical standpoint)—we don’t much care for, whomever he bonks (if anyone at all).
But what if the term by itself doesn’t seem strong enough to capture a subject in all his loathsome glory? In this case, we may want to append an amplifying adjective to the noun. And so we might call him a fucking motherfucker.
However, due to the inherent redundancy of using the same root term twice in a row, which really doesn’t add much substance to our insult, we’d likely prefer an amplifier that highlights yet another character flaw besides perpetrating incest. The more the merrier.
And so we might call him a racist motherfucker. Or a sexist motherfucker.
Because just as motherfucker is commonly being used in a sense wholly unmoored from its literal meaning, so are, increasingly, these other two terms.
For if you have a skin color, you might as well be a racist. So why not call you out on what you might be? And if you have a gender, you might as well have sexist proclivities. So what’s wrong with calling you “sexist” just in case?
This is no different from implying, via an offensive epithet, that, if you are physically equipped to do so, you might as well be doing your mother—for who knows if you are or aren’t or ever have or haven’t?
No matter how technically (given its expansion in lexis, I hesitate to use the term “literally”) accurate these terms may apply in many cases, ever more often, it seems, they’re being casually thrown around as generic expressions of contempt, irrespective of whether or not they, strictly speaking, highlight a trait the person at the receiving end of the excoriation indeed possesses. After all, technical accuracy not the point. The point is to insult, especially if we’re actively ticked off at someone.
Language has a strong phatic component to it. We use language to set a tone, to express an emotion, to set an atmosphere, more so than to impart factual information of a type as would be admissible in a court of law.
And that’s fine. The problem is, since racism and sexism are very specific and genuine scourges that exist in the world (probably more so than does maternal incest), we may soon need new terms to signify these unfortunate phenomena when they are literally (in the tried-and-true sense of “literally”) occurring, as opposed to for use on occasions when we simply need a good put-down to vent our general frustration at or over someone motherfucker-style.
For as matters stand, if someone describes you as “literally a racist motherfucker (or a motherfucking racist),” chances are this characterization no more means that you’re literally a racist than it means that you’re literally a motherfucker.
Not even literally means literally anymore.
Tags: Words & Language