Why is this story making me so angry? I asked myself this morning as I massaged my finger against my temple in an effort to stop my right eyeball from twitching.
Here’s what had my feathers in a ruffle: A dive bar in New York’s East Village has put up a sign indicating they’re asking customers who say the word “literally” to leave their bar. Literally!
Literally is a word that, in 2018, means its opposite, or is used for emphasis. “Literally” literally means not literally. It is also just a word, not a racial slur, threat, or profanity. So why does a bar care how people use it?
Grub Street reported that Continental’s sign reads: “Sorry but if you say the word ‘literally’ you have 5 minutes to finish your drink and then you must leave. ... If you actually start a sentence with ‘I literally,’ you must leave immediately!!! ... Stop Kardashianism now!”
Please note the three exclamation points.
Here’s the deal, Continental: I don’t know where you get off—as a bar, and one that slings “5 shots of anything for $10"—policing my or anyone else’s language. Customers are paying money to drink in your bar, to relax, to talk the way they want. Making them feel welcome, no matter how they speak or dress or look, is part of hospitality.
I figuratively can’t even.
Literally has been used as a linguistic intensifier since the 17th century, and continued to evolve within the English lexicon until present day, according to this Language Log post from Ben Zimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. (He’s now the language editor for the Wall Street Journal.)
Linguists—and people who’ve lived through the fads of “like” and “totally” and “far out” and “radical”—know that language evolves. Usages that were proper in Shakespeare’s time make no sense to us in 2018, you whoreson impudent embossed rascals (Henry IV, part I)!
My friend Cecily, who is a linguist, tells me literally is one of the hottest topics in linguistics right now, with blogs and experts and even dictionary publishers weighing in.
Merriam-Webster cites instances of James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlotte Brontë all using “literally” in a figurative or emphatic sense. The dictionary itself lists a secondary meaning of the word, which is “in effect : virtually.” Merriam-Webster goes on to say:
We understand that many have chosen this particular issue as the one about which they choose to draw a line in the sand, on the grounds that a word should not mean one thing and its opposite (a fairly common thing in English). But a living language is a language that is always changing; this change may be lovely, and it may be ugly. As lexicographers we are in the business of defining language, rather than judging it.
It’s literally (in a literal sense or manner : actually) in the dictionary, Continental.
But this is not a linguistics or grammar battle. It’s about hospitality (noun): : hospitable treatment, reception, or disposition. Your hospitality, Continental, frankly sucks.