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

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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
  14. Kelly -  September 26, 2013 - 5:46 pm

    I think that the example given above “If I don’t eat, I’ll literally die” is sort of an accidental irony. As stated in the article, Pope and Dickens were using an ironic ‘literally’ over a century ago. It’s just become so much a part of the lexicon that people who use ‘literally’ figuratively don’t know that it is an ironic usage.

    When one says “……I’ll literally die!” they are quite aware of the the fact that they won’t actually fall down dead. But ‘literally’ has been used ironically for so long, that it’s use as an ironic modifier has become common usage – even for those who have no idea that it’s ironic.

    Reply
  15. rgeegee -  September 26, 2013 - 5:44 pm

    Ah, and how about the over and misuse of “basically?”

    Reply
  16. ik,kuuujh -  September 26, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    8o9k

    Reply
  17. lee -  September 26, 2013 - 12:46 pm

    i really dont care i just like using ly at the at the end of the words sadly.

    Reply
  18. Concerned Citizen -  September 26, 2013 - 11:05 am

    I agree. This story makes no sense. When my students tell me, “But, Teacher, you CAN’T give me a D! My parents will LITERALLY kill me,” they are not using it to be ironic (unless there’s also a new meaning for ironic — perhaps dictionary.com should start researching that??? ;). What they mean is that their parents will be extremely angry with them. Their parents may yell at them, take away privileges or swat them on their behind.

    They certainly don’t mean it ironically, which would communicate that they believed their parents loved it when their children brought home low grades. Neither do they mean that they think their parents actually intend to murder them.

    I don’t take any issue with the use of definitely or totally as referenced in this article. If either of those examples had replaced those words with literally, I still wouldn’t take issue with its use. Irony and satire make language rich and interesting, but the misuse of literally simply isn’t an example of such.

    Reply
  19. brian -  September 26, 2013 - 10:35 am

    thanks for ruining my day

    Reply
  20. Joy Van Veen -  September 26, 2013 - 9:05 am

    I disagree that the words “definitely” and “totally” have the same meaning. If I said, “I will definitely attend the 4H dog show.”, it would not mean the same thing as, “I will totally attend the 4H dog show.”.

    Joy

    Reply
  21. The Doctor -  September 26, 2013 - 8:28 am

    Fantastic explanation of the words. Allons’y!

    Reply
  22. en jay -  September 25, 2013 - 10:26 pm

    “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis ,
    Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylarginyl…isoleucine ,
    sample of longest word- tackle this next…

    Reply
  23. en jay -  September 25, 2013 - 10:20 pm

    “BASICALLY’ …Practically’… Candid_————————-

    Reply
  24. uiolp;;' -  September 25, 2013 - 2:47 pm

    wwwwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeellllllllll

    Reply
  25. Sebastian C. -  September 25, 2013 - 1:22 pm

    @ Wayne R. lol nice i see what you did there haha!

    Reply
  26. Albion -  September 25, 2013 - 11:23 am

    I don’t believe that the article is trying to prove that the word “literally” is being misused for ironic effect, but rather that the misuse of the adverb is a normal part of a word’s evolution. The article further goes on to say that the emphatic usage of “literally” has occurred as far back as the 16th century and the likes of A. Pope and C. Dickens.
    We cannot expect the proper and original usage of all words, otherwise modern colloquial conversations would all but shatter. Even words such as “nice” and “snob” originally had far different connotations. The evolution of words and grammar is a common and necessary part of language and culture which without would provide little to no information on the cultural context of literature within our era. Not everybody is a grammarian.

    Reply
  27. Thews -  September 25, 2013 - 10:17 am

    Let’s expand the meaning of these words. This will eliminate the misuse of them.

    Reply
  28. princess -  September 25, 2013 - 8:23 am

    wow that’s only what i can say

    Reply
  29. Row bear -  September 24, 2013 - 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.

    Reply
  30. me my self and I -  September 24, 2013 - 5:31 pm

    The usage of the context literally, definitely, totally varies on their meaning, but similar in word, the most important is to use them on their proper sentences that fits their meaning…

    Reply
  31. Adam Watts -  September 24, 2013 - 4:29 pm

    I agree there is no connection between the story and the use of “literally”. Or to restate that with sarcasm (not irony) … there’s obviously a connection. In that sense, the sarcasm does not add a new definition for the word “obviously” nor for the word “connection” – it does change the meaning of the statement to its opposite. The sarcasm is not applied to any one word but to the concept that the entire phrase connotates. The sarcasm would usually (though not always) be communicated with some other form of communication such as the rolling of eyes or the use of tone or emphasis. Otherwise, the sarcasm must be deduced from contextual information which may require knowledge or familiarity in order for the reader to make the connection. Otherwise, they are likely to take the statement literally.

    As for the use of “literally” that they have given the green light, I would recommend using the word “practically” instead; it will more effectively communicate the intended message.

    Reply
  32. Martha -  September 24, 2013 - 1:23 pm

    Recently had to troll through pages of Trip Advisor on a research project and was charmed by this emphatic recommendation of a hotel: “I will defiantly recommend this resort.”

    Reply
  33. Joe -  September 19, 2013 - 8:20 am

    This article really has nothing to do with the misuse of “literally.” When people use “definitely” and “totally” in ironic ways as discussed here, they are doing it on purpose. Their intent is to be ironic. But when people use “literally” in a way that actually means figuratively, like, “If I don’t get something to eat I will literally die,” they are usually not trying to be ironic. They are using it for emphasis, unaware that that is not what the word is for.

    Reply
  34. marlon paulse -  September 19, 2013 - 5:43 am

    Most definitely the two words rhyme is it in a literal sence? I’ve learnt something new today,definitely it is awesome literaly.

    Reply
  35. Del Quenzer -  September 19, 2013 - 4:36 am

    Seriously

    Reply
  36. Wayne R -  September 18, 2013 - 9:04 pm

    When people use definitely to be ironic it is on purpose.

    When people use literally it is not to be ironic, they are just misusing the word.

    Any word can be used ironically, but using words incorrectly is literally bad.

    Reply
  37. Abbybabs -  September 18, 2013 - 7:54 am

    This article really has nothing to do with the misuse of “literally.” When people use “definitely” and “totally” in ironic ways as discussed here, they are doing it on purpose. Their intent is to be ironic. But when people use “literally” in a way that actually means figuratively, like, “If I don’t get something to eat I will literally die,” they are usually not trying to be ironic. They are using it for emphasis, unaware that that is not what the word is for.

    Reply
  38. Mike -  September 18, 2013 - 6:59 am

    It’s bad enough we’re giving “literallyists” a pass, now we’re giving them credit for accidental irony.

    Reply

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