Thursday, July 14, 2011

Edo's Crash Course in the English Language: Lesson One


So it's a bit of a divergence, shall we say, from my regular fare. Nary a reference to Japan, land or culture, in sight. (Yes, I thought of the pun, considered it, and ultimately discarded it. You get no points for spotting it second.) But according to my blog's description, located conveniently to your right at this very moment, this blog is, in fact, dedicated to all of my (subjective terminology) interesting thoughts.

Quite frankly, you people should take what you can get. Look at that update schedule. Yeesh.

Anyway, on to the main event.

It may be quite obvious to you, my devoted readers, that the English language suffers abuse on a daily basis. Yes, some liberal-minded linguists argue in favor of evolution, speaking favorably of the constant flow and change of a living language and, quite frankly, being a bit too loosey-goosey for my tastes.

Thus, I have decided to begin a series (which I assuredly shall wish to append and embellish during the entirety of my English-speaking life, despite a lack of ambition or will to do so in actuality) detailing some... points of contention. Lessons, if you will, for those less... precise than I.

Feel free to bandy these about, refer agrammatical friends to this post, or simply roll your eyes and move on to the next entry. (Of course, should you be inclined to do something not in this list, please do not let my limited time frame and lack of effort limit your creativity.)

Lesson 1. "Literally" vs. "Figuratively"

I'm quite sure that this was brought to my attention via a third party, but unfortunately I have no idea what or who said third party actually was. Such are the failings of the human mind, alas. However, despite the lack of originality in this original complaint, my feelings are not diminished in the slightest.

It seems that our good friend, "literally," is being abused.

You see, we speakers of the English language often use metaphor, simile, and hyperbole to pepper our speech and make conversation more interesting for all parties involved. English speakers are not alone in this habit, but let's keep the subject here in my native language for the sake of simplicity, and because I have no idea if this problem has ventured outside of the Anglocentric world.

Now, when we use these aforementioned forms of speech, we are, by definition, not speaking literally.

Example: The frustration caused by my constituents' apparent semantic confusion made me see red.

This sentence expresses how the speaker's frustration causes her to feel no small amount of anger. "To see red" is a well established phrase in the English language meaning, of course, to become angry, or, on the more extreme end, to lose control. While the phrase's origins are debated, one can safely assume that most people (excluding perhaps certain synesthetes) do not actually see red when they become angry.


Example: I literally* saw red when he told me I had to work overtime with no extra pay.

Unless the "he" in question was waving a red cape during his less than savory edict or the speaker herself has a rather distressing neurological problem that would be best discussed with her local neurologist, her use of "literally" is blatantly incorrect (and, coincidentally, infuriating) in this situation.

Now, one may argue for hyperbole. I argue that "literally" is then butchered and loses all meaning outside these shoddily constructed formations that would be better left on the side of the road than in any respectable individual's lexicon.

"Literally," after all, is very important in modern language, specifically because so many phrases can be interpreted as either literal or figurative. Oftentimes these phrases aren't meant literally, and would be quite silly in any sort of literal interpretation (the colloquial "what's up?" comes to mind), but there are occasions when the addition of "literally" is vital to the listener's understanding of the speaker's intent.

Example: That migraine injection was a literal pain in the ass. (Implication: the injection was given to the speaker in the buttocks.)

In this case, the speaker uses the word "literally" in order to convey that, while the shot may have been a figurative "pain in the ass," it was also a literal one as it was administered, we can assume, to the derriere.

However, if we abuse "literal" and "literally" as in the penultimate example above, sentences like this will become absolutely meaningless, and we will be forced to invent (or allocate meaning appropriately to) a new word entirely to serve the semantic gap where "literal" has so recently been unceremoniously yanked.

In short, take a moment to think before embellishing your sentence with a meaningless "literally." Some of us need that word, sans meaning bastardization.

And yes, I know some of you may have read contemporary articles concerning this very issue, some even going so far as to say that "literally" has had its meaning morphed into "not literally" in common conversational usage. Apparently some even cite an example in The Great Gatsby, but I fail to see how improper usage of a word once in the early 20th century makes its continued misuse any more valid today. After all, they thought that heroin was a great cough syrup in the early 20th century, so let's just say it's not the best time for intellectual hindsight. (Besides, I hate The Great Gatsby.) Frankly, I'm just not ready to see "literal" suffer the same fate as "inflammable", dear readers, not yet.

This is Edo, signing off hoping that she wasn't too pretentious to bear this time around.

... ok, ok, I admit, this topic is just a little too "out there" (not to mention infuriatingly preachy and irritating) to let the post slide into publication without a little something for my devoted readers who are less-than-interested in modern linguistic debate. I apologize, dears, and present this peace offering.

How can you be mad at me after DJ Ozma, after all?

And since I think the live version really gives you a better feel of the song and just how interactive it is (despite its lack of helpful lyric subtitles)...

If you've only time for one of these videos, I recommend the latter. Unless, of course, you have some interest in a (very) brief interview and banter of debatable wittiness on Utawara. Then... you should probably make the time to watch both.

(Unfortunately AVEX, stingy bastards that they are, took down the original live video I wanted to show you. Thus, you get the version with... inexplicable alien/robot Ozmas. Oh, well.)


Anonymous said...

I got in to JET! any advice on what to pack to Tokyo Japan? what not to pack?

Edo said...

Congrats! Deodorant and toothpaste, kid. Those are the necessities for Japan. Also, any sort of medication that you need on a regular basis; ibuprofen, cold medicine, what have you. Japanese medicine is absolutely rubbish for those of us used to the western stuff.

Other than that? Use your best judgement, and shoot off e-mails to your fellow JETs for some advice on the area you're getting sent to. :)