How literal is literal?

Have you noticed that literally doesn’t literally mean ‘literally’ anymore?

It’s now quite frequently used as a general intensifier. I’ve only recently begun to notice it in phrases like I literally died laughing and I literally worked myself to death. Online dictionaries say this is an "informal" usage.

Compact English Dictionary:

1. in a literal manner or sense
2. informal used for emphasis (rather than to suggest literal truth)

Cambridge International Dictionary of English:

1. used to emphasize what you are saying
  <He missed that kick literally by miles>
  <I was literally bowled over by the news>
2. simply or just
  <Then you literally cut the sausage down the middle>

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary:

1. in a literal sense or manner : actually
  <took the remark literally>
  <was literally insane>
2. in effect : virtually
  <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

They add:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

None of my readily available print dictionaries mention this "informal" usage, although the thesaurus part of Collins dictionary and thesaurus (publ. 1987) lists actually and really under literally, words which can similarly be used for emphasis. Also, one of my English-Swedish dictionaries, Engelsk-Svensk ordbok by Kärre, Lindqvist, Nöjd & Redin, publ. 1938, does add "fullkomligt" (meaning ‘entirely’) as a possible translation for literally, but labels it "familjärt" (i.e. colloquial).

It’s use for emphasis must be fairly new. At least I’ve just started noticing it, although that’s admittedly no proof of anything but my observational skills. However, older dictionaries don’t seem to recognise it at all. For instance, the online version of Webster’s 1828 dictionary says:

1. According to the primary and natural import of words; not figuratively.
  <A man and his wife cannot be literally one flesh>
2. With close adherence to words; word by word.
  <So wild and ungovernable a poet cannot be translated literally.>

(The same appears in the online version of Webster’s 1913 edition.)

Anyway, I’m not opposing this (new?) usage. The fact that words change meaning is an inevitable and natural feature of any living language. It’s a sign of health. Word meanings are only stable in dead languages.


You are what you blog

Well, you are, if you believe the Typealyzer, which is some sort of text analyser. They don’t give any details of what it is that they do exactly, and should probably not be taken too seriously. Still, having typed in the URL of my own blog, it concludes the following about me:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

So while I’m logical, creative and intellectual, I’m also an insensitive, arrogant bastard. That should make some people very happy to hear, I suppose.

To catch a predator

I want to draw attention to the TV show Dateline NBC: To Catch a Predator, an awe-inspiring TV show in which adults who solicit sex from minors are caught red-handed (and on a couple occasions literally with their pants down). The show is done in co-operation with a watchdog group called Perverted Justice, and local law enforcement.

In brief, adult volunteers from Perverted Justice create fake IDs on various chat rooms, and pretend to be under-age kids. Almost immediately, they are accosted by adult men, who sooner rather than later start to probe the supposed minors about their sex fantasies and sex habits. It doesn’t take long before they set up a meeting. But instead of a kid home alone, the adult meets Chris Hansen, the host of the TV show, and has to sit through a very discomforting interview. After that, they are usually apprehended by the local police. And it all takes place in front of multiple hidden TV cameras.

Some people adore the show, others despise it. Personally I’m a bit ambivalent, though I tend to lean towards the praisers. There is a clear educational, even samaritan, purpose with the show. Hopefully it scares other potential predators, but one of it’s greatest merits lies in the fact that it shows us (others) what these people look like. Or rather, it shows us that internet predatos look, behave and talk just like anyone else. There’s nothing in their outward appearance or behaviour that makes them stand out as sex predators. They look like you and me.

The part which the show relies most heavily on, the torturing interviews, could be described as a heartless ratings gimmick. It is obvious that while the predators are being interviewed, they experience considerable emotional distress. Normally I would feel sympathy for persons going through the kind of anguish most of them display, but in this case I don’t feel any sympathy at all. I don’t feel sorry for them. I even enjoy it.

The predators are, of course, fully responsible for the situation they are in. They themselves initiated contact with someone who they thought was under-age. Their chats are usually sexually explicit, and sometimes even disturbing. (You can read them on Perverted Justice’s homepage, uncensored, but beware, some of them are very disturbing.)

Many of them sent pictures of themselves fondling their own genitals. They intentionally sought physical contact with the minors. They soemtimes went through considerable trouble to reach the location where they believe a minor was home alone. They brought alcohol, condoms and lubricants. One of them brought ropes and duck tape. One even had a loaded gun in his pocket. One guy started fondling his own genitals as soon as he came the door, and two guys stripped completely naked in preparation for the meeting.

There’s seldom any question about their intentions, even though their initial explanations often indicate quite innocent reasons for them being there:

  • A friend told me to come here.
  • All I wanted to do was probably be like a big brother or something.
  • I didn’t intend to do anything.
  • I don’t know what to tell you.
  • I feel very bad about this.
  • I go to church every Sunday.
  • I got two kids of my own.
  • I gotta 15-year old daughter myself.
  • I guarantee it’ll never happen again.
  • I had no intention of having sex.
  • I just came to hang out.
  • I just wanted to talk. I swear to you.
  • I love my wife.
  • I made a mistake, and I won’t do it again.
  • I needed someone to talk to.
  • I never really was gonna do anything.
  • I swear I’ll never do it again.
  • I was bored.
  • I was curious but I wasn’t going to do anything.
  • I was fully intending on sitting right here till her mother got home.
  • I was just coming here to check on her if she’s ok.
  • I wasn’t gonna do anything.
  • I would never do anything like this.
  • I wouldn’t do that to a 13-year-old, believe me.
  • I wouldn’t have gone all the way.
  • I’m a very good family person.
  • I’m a very lonely guy.
  • I’m a very religious person.
  • I’m here to party.
  • I’m just visiting. That’s all.
  • I’m no pervert.
  • I’m really a good guy.
  • I’m so embarrassed.
  • I’m so sorry.
  • I’m very loyal to my wife.
  • I’ve got a family at home. I love them dearly.
  • I’ve never done this before.
  • This is the first time. It will never happen again.

Apparently they just want to hold the kids company till their mothers get home. They want to warn them about the dangers of the internet. You know, be a mentor for them, a big brother, a good samaritan, a good Christian, the pillar of society. The pictures of their penises were only sent for educational purposes (as one of them said to the police). Well, you can’t fault them for lack of trying.

To date, NBC has produced and aired 12 shows, and they’ve been in cities all over the US. The predators themselves come from all walks of life and include students, truck drivers, businessmen, unemployed, fire fighters, priests, a rabbi, a cancer doctor, a police man, and so on.

In Sweden, the show has been titled "Jakten på nätpedofilerna", which literally means The hunt for the internet pedophiles. The Swedish title is a ridiculous choice. The show is not about pedophiles. The show’s producers are very clear on that issue. They have deliberately chosen to talk about predators, not pedophiles.

Anyhoo, I strongly recommend the show, especially the special editions called "The unseen tapes", which contain complete interviews, virtually unedited.