Words Mean What We Say They Do — Literally!

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The fact that the word ‘literally’ has become its own antonym is remarkable enough. But the backlash against this move is also worth noting.

Self-appointed diction experts have been counseling against using ‘literally’ in a non-literal, i.e., figurative, sense for decades. But despite their protestations, ‘literally’ has been used to mean ‘figuratively’ at least as often as its stated meaning, e.g., “I would literally die of embarrassment.” Recently, Google updated its online definition of ‘literally’ to reflect this paradoxical usage.

When ‘literally’ earned its antonym definition of ‘figuratively,’ there came a literal (figurative) firestorm of controversy. “Have we literally broken the English language?” asked columnist Martha Gill. Gill’s headline is offered in jest, but there are more than a few guardians of the English language who see red when language changes, and what was once a faux pas becomes acceptable usage.

Perhaps it’s best to back up a moment and ask: who decides what words comprise the English language and how they may be used? In a practical sense, teachers and professors instruct their students in proper English. But they have to resort to a dictionary to get their definitions; and where do dictionaries get their information? It turns out they get it from us. If enough people use the same word in a certain way for long enough, then that usage becomes a legitimate dictionary-approved definition which, by rights, ought to be upheld by school teachers everywhere.

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To summarize, words mean what we (collectively, consistently) use them to mean. Although we could experience some cognitive dissonance as we move from the old regime to the new, language is fluid and it needs to be so. There was a time before there was an English language. There was a time before language of any kind. It’s important to remember that, when it comes to language, we made it all up. We always have and we always will.

For a client to make progress in therapy, they often need to think of their own emotions and thoughts in the same way as I’ve been regarding words. Our own internal thought processes usually make reference to the outside world, but they are not strictly determined by it. We make up our own thoughts and feelings almost as surely as we have made up the words we use to talk about them.

Legendary physicist Richard Feynman pondered, if all knowledge of science were lost, what one sentence would best put humanity back on the road to understanding the universe again. Feynman proposed the sentence “all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

Therapy has a similar sentence, I believe. Although I doubt I could convince a majority of therapists that this would be the one, I submit “men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”, written by Epictetus in the Enchiridion. To understand this one sentence is to have hope of leaving baseless, disturbing emotional states behind. To practice and internalize it is to make good on the escape.

Just as ‘literally’ can be defined in contradictory ways, experiences that were once disturbing can become innocuous or even positive, given the right shift in meaning. Stephen Covey, of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame, calls such a mental realignment a “paradigm shift.” He tells the story of riding the subway in New York when a father gets on the train with his children. The kids are out of control, loud, and a huge nuisance. Covey immediately decides that the father is to blame and confronts the man on his lack of parenting skills. Only then is he told that in fact these children have just lost their mother about an hour ago. Everyone in the family is in shock. No one knows what to do our how to behave. In an instant, Covey’s understanding of the situation goes through a sickening somersault and his indignation is replaced by compassion for the man and his children, as well as embarrassment for his prior misjudgement.

But even if we recognize a gap between our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, beliefs and objective reality, it takes uncommon wisdom to bring this knowledge to bear when emotions run high. If Bob has denied you a raise, the thought “Bob is a jerk, and a cheapskate” are hard to resist. Even if Bob has, in times past, been unfailingly generous and kind, the sting of rejection erases all the other evidence and you cling to “Bob is a jerk” with the same ferocity as others do to the textbook meaning of ‘literally.’

Sometimes, as happened to Stephen Covey, some external event shocks us into remembering that our perspective is merely one perspective of many, and not guaranteed to be the most accurate. If we are fortunate or skilled, we’ll come to this conclusion ourselves sooner rather than later. And failing that, it doesn’t hurt to have a trusted therapist who can help us to keep putting some psychological distance between what we see and what we think about what we see.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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