The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten: Weighing in on ‘literally,’ but figuratively, of course

(Eric Shansby)

To the Nobel Prize committee:

I am writing to suggest that you make your first posthumous award in literature, and that it go to Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century American satirist. I have always admired Bierce, but I do not write merely as a fan; I write to acquaint you with what may well be the greatest feat of long-range prognostication in the history of the written word.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

While reading Bierce essays recently, my friend Jack Shafer discovered the following passage: “Nothing is more certain than that within a few years the word ‘literally’ will mean ‘figuratively.’ And this because journalists, with a greater desire to write forcibly than ability to do so, habitually use it in that sense.” (He was talking about this sort of imbecilic formulation: “I literally died of laughter.”)

Bierce wrote this prescient passage in 1871. As you may be aware from recent publicity, the Oxford English Dictionary — arbiter of all things English — has finally, inevitably, sanctioned the use of “literally” to mean its precise opposite. It is a hapless surrender to, figuratively, eons of careless misuse.

(Note my correct use of the verb “sanction,” which has also been corrupted over the years to mean “to outlaw,” its precise opposite; the OED has been complicit in permitting this, as well. And don’t get me started on “imply” and “infer,” which most dictionaries now say can be used interchangeably, which is no different from allowing “pitch” to be synonymous with “catch.” This, too, was occasioned by sustained years of misuse.)

I am not a language tyrant, nor do I disrespect dictionary editors, to whom falls the distasteful duty of reading and listening to what is being widely uttered and written and adding these things to the lexicon merely on the basis of ubiquity. So, although I may cringe at “blogosphere” and “webinar” and, sigh, “whatevs,” I do not protest their appearance in dictionaries. But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.

(I should mention that defenders of “literally” as “figuratively” note that it has been used that way once or twice by people with serious writing chops, such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. That no more makes it right or acceptable than it makes it right for you to annihilate 100,000 people with a bomb just because Harry Truman once did it.)

So, my point is that if you posthumously give Ambrose Bierce the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, you will be sending an important message to lexicographers worldwide.

Finally, I know that the Nobel committee tends to reward bodies of work; rest assured, Bierce successfully predicted much more than the trashing of “literally.” I’ll leave you with one more bit. Upon departing on horseback for Mexico in 1913, at the age of 71, to bear witness to Pancho Villa’s revolution, Bierce wrote this to a niece: “Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”

It was the last anyone heard of him. The old gringo’s body has never been found.

Another viewpoint: from The Post’s Bill Walsh.

E-mail Gene at Find chats and updates at

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