Dictionary.com

What does “literally” have to do with the ironic uses of “definitely” and “totally”?

literally_big_2

With all the recent hullabaloo about the figurative sense of literally, language enthusiasts have given much thought to this often maligned term. Recently we discussed how the metaphorical extension of literally is nothing new—it’s been around since the 1700s—and now we’d like to explore a few other adverbs and their ironic uses. Let’s focus on definitely and totally to see if the linguistic development of literally is not an isolated incident but a trend.

In the late 1600s, literally was being used as an emphatic adverb, and the earliest known uses of the figurative literally date from the 1700s. A possible scenario: the stress put on the emphatic sense of literally soon carried over to the ironic sense, which linguists remind enraged masses, was used by the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens generations before any of us were born.

To a certain extent, definitely and totally can be seen to parallel the linguistic development of literally, from literal to emphatic to ironic. Because the ironic uses of definitely and totally are still very new, we’ll look to language innovators such as teens, twenty-somethings and techies for some insight on the use of these terms. Let’s start with definitely. On the teen-girl-geared website Rookiemag.com, one writer’s bio reads as follows:

When she’s not busy writing to support her glamorous waitressing career, you can catch her tweeting, embroidering, blogging, or definitely not reading Food Network fan fiction.

In this example, the original meaning of definitely takes on ironic connotations, resulting in an opposite meaning. This author can, in fact, be caught reading Food Network fan fiction. This activity is a guilty pleasure for the author, and by playing with the sense of definitely, she jokes that she understands how strange her hobby might sound to other people. On the pop-culture site Jezebel.com, a headline reads “Definitely Legit: Someone Selling Original Monet on Craigslist for $5,000.” The author of this article ironically twists definitely to mean “utterly not”—the statement that follows “definitely legit” is most certainly not “legit.” Totally and definitely are interchangeable in the “definitely legit” construction. In an article on TechCrunch about a disposable phone-number app, the author, with a twinkle in his eye, concludes with “Now, go! Go and use this for totally legit and not at all shady purposes.”

Another example of the ironic use of definitely can be found in our post on literally where we highlight this Jezebel headline: “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.” The “(because) X definitely need(s) another/more Y” construction also appears with the term totally standing in for definitely. We can see this pattern emerge in product review on Venture Beat headlined “Because we totally need a sensor in our shoe that talks to our phone to tell us to buy new shoes.” The highly snarky article proceeds to make fun of the patent claims of this technology.

Today definitely and totally are increasingly being used in ironic contexts, just as new usages of literally emerged back in the 1700s. While the public eye might be focusing on literally, perhaps that old news should be dropped in favor of analysis of these largely unexplored uses of definitely and totally.

Do you ever use these adverbs ironically? Can you think of any other adverbs that are behaving like definitely and totally?

38 Comments

  1. Jonathan -  October 13, 2013 - 3:18 pm

    Wow, literally none of you understand how language really works.

    Reply
  2. Corinth -  September 30, 2013 - 3:32 am

    Soon there will be nothing left, literally, and we can go back to mumbling. I hate the overuse of basically. Why does everything have to be basic.

    Reply
  3. J -  September 29, 2013 - 8:24 pm

    Row bear said on September 24, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    “It’s really quite simple, any time you hear someone say something to the effect of “I literally will die if I don’t get some food.,” Ask them “As opposed to figuratively?” Problem solved.”

    How about–”I will literally waste away to a shadow if I don’t get some food!” In referring to their body mass, the speaker is using it figuratively.

    Reply
  4. kayleigh -  September 29, 2013 - 6:47 pm

    thank you for telling me this

    Reply
  5. meegan -  September 29, 2013 - 3:03 pm

    wow. that’s special. I LITERALLY do that all the time.

    Reply
  6. Kara -  September 29, 2013 - 2:58 pm

    I think people like using literally incorrectly even though they know they’re not making sense. It’s one of those words that’s seen as cool to use; looking back at when I used to use it incorrectly, I realise it’s just teenage girl talk and probably made me look like an idiot. I think we tend to copy what we hear other people use.

    Reply
  7. Brian Davids -  September 29, 2013 - 12:36 am

    I knew that two good hotwords would be too good to be true. Back to hotword ineptitude, for reasons already pointed out :(

    Reply
  8. timmy22222 -  September 28, 2013 - 7:11 pm

    yeah.. whoever wrote this needs to either literally or totally be fired – they may choose, lolzskies! Just like every other human with a brain has already said, people who use “literally,” literally think they are literally using the word as an emphatic adverb.

    Reply
  9. perley -  September 28, 2013 - 1:04 pm

    It angers me to find out this article has nothing to do with the word “literally”.

    Reply
  10. Steven Greyskull -  September 28, 2013 - 12:44 pm

    It’s a shame you posted a link to Jezebel on this website. Now I can never come here ever again.

    Reply
  11. Josh -  September 27, 2013 - 7:37 am

    Lots of comments here from hardcore grammar conservatives who will cling unflaggingly to what they learned the rules to be, but I for one appreciate the insight into the broader linguistic trend going on here. The word “clearly” seems also to have undergone this same progression. The word “really” on the other hand I am not so sure about. I’d like to see an article about that one.

    Reply
  12. The Negative Canon: Literally | Caxton -  September 27, 2013 - 12:12 am

    [...] It hardly seems necessary to comment further on literally, but I do so for the sake of completeness. It’s been covered by CNN, the  Daily Mail and The Guardian, Ben Zimmer on Language Log, John McIntyre in the Baltimore Sun and by various other blogs including Syracuse.com, YouGov, The Web of Language, The Drum and The Hot Word. [...]

    Reply
  13. Andrew H. Livingston -  September 26, 2013 - 9:07 pm

    “Language enthusiasts have given much thought to this often maligned term…In the late 1600s, literally was being used as an emphatic adverb, and the earliest known uses of the figurative literally date from the 1700s. A possible scenario: the stress put on the emphatic sense of literally soon carried over to the ironic sense, which linguists remind enraged masses, was used by the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens generations before any of us were born.”

    As always appeals to authority (that is to say, reverse ad hominems) and appeals to tradition are the only justifications for recently included trendy bad usages which the makers of a dictionary can offer. It’s been the same all of my life.

    Reply
1 2

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top