When I go on radio shows to talk about English language usage, talk inevitably turns to words and phrases that people find annoying. (The topic is sure to light up the call-in lines.) Among the top peeves I hear about are three expressions that get used in an inverted fashion: literally used non-literally to emphasize a figure of speech, irregardless used to mean regardless, and could care less used to mean couldn't care less. What's with all the flip-flopping?
These three usage bugaboos came up this week, since I went on the CBC radio show "Q" to talk about the peculiarly backwards way that literally gets used to emphasize figurative language (usually of the hyperbolic variety, as in "I'm literally going to explode if I eat one more Swedish meatball"). Then, on the show's website, they ran a listener contest on "the most annoying misused words," and irregardless and could care less quickly established themselves as frontrunners. Even congenial Canadians were bugged by these.
I've been fielding calls on literally lately because of a widely read Boston Globe piece ("Literally the Most Misused Word") that quoted me saying that I thought non-literal literally had become ubiquitous. But as I argued on the CBC, I don't think this ubiquity is something we have to worry much about: the primary sense of literally is still holding on strong, even while the word has developed a secondary sense in colloquial use that contradicts the primary one. (This makes it a "contronym," much like sanction or cleave.) To paraphrase our recent book excerpt from John McWhorter, language can be messy that way, but we still manage to communicate with each other just fine. In fact, as I pointed out in a Word Routes column in 2008, literally has been emphasizing hyperbolic figures of speech since the 18th century, and yet the world hasn't ended. And as I also noted, we blithely use really and truly for things that aren't real or true — so why have I never heard a single complaint about either of those?
Still, that doesn't mean I think non-literal literally is fine and dandy — I wouldn't use it myself, and when I catch others using it I occasionally cringe. Usually, I just try to enjoy the comedic potential for interpreting hyperboles literally. So when I was watching the broadcast of the thrilling Women's World Cup quarterfinals between the United States and Brazil last month, I chuckled when I heard announcer Ian Darke say of the American women's come-from-behind win, "The U.S.A. — quite literally, really — back from the dead!" (Zombie soccer!) The laughs continued in the finals, when the U.S. player Abby Wambach said of her Japanese counterpart (and former teammate) Homare Sawa, "I couldn't be prouder of Sawa than for literally putting her team on her back and carrying them to the final." Both sports commentators and athletes themselves can't seem to get enough of literally as an intensifier.
Like non-literal literally, irregardless is a lot older than you might think. The first known appearance of it is in a 1795 poem entitled "The Old Woman and Her Tabby" that appeared in the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser of Charleston, South Carolina:
But death, irregardless of tenderest ties,
Resolv'd the good Betty, at length, to bereave:
He strikes — the poor fav'rite reluctantly dies!
Breaks her mistress's heart — both descend to the grave.
Irregardless is often explained as a kind of blend, combining irrespective and regardless into one illogical mishmash. But Larry Horn, a linguist at Yale who is an expert in negation, has pointed out that in the 16th and 17th centuries, words of the form un-X-less were quite common. The Oxford English Dictionary records such examples as unboundless, unfathomless, unhelpless, unmatchless, unmerciless, unnumberless, unremorseless, and unshameless. In all of these cases, the un- could safely be removed (unboundless simply meant boundless, for instance). And so it appears that irregardless emerged from this same impulse to pile up more negatives than strictly necessary.
"I could care less" moves in the other direction: instead of over-negation, it's an example of under-negation. Somewhere along the way, the negative version, "I could not care less," developed a variation without the not. I covered this one in a 2009 Word Routes column, observing that could care less came on the scene in 1955, a mere eleven years after couldn't care less was first documented. Larry Horn, the negation expert, argues that a similar inversion has happened with what linguists call "squatitives": informal expressions like "He doesn't know diddly-squat" or "I couldn't give a damn." We frequently change those from negative to positive ("He knows diddly-squat" or "I could give a damn"), but for some reason those don't raise the ire of the anti-could care less brigade.
Why do we so often indulge in this kind of semantic flip-flopping? In some cases, an inversion can happen without us even being aware of it. If a friend tells you that she just got back from a vacation and her bags are still unpacked, what is your mental image of her bags? You will likely understand her to mean that her bags are still packed, and she hasn't had time to unpack them (rendering them un-unpacked). Over on Language Log, where I also contribute, we've found many examples of similar inversions, such as presents that are "still unwrapped" (i.e., not yet unwrapped) or bottles of wine that are "still uncorked" (i.e., not yet corked). These tend to fly under our linguistic radar, unless somebody points them out to us. I'm afraid we're flipping our meanings much more often than we realize, and it's only certain high-profile offenders that draw our attention. Yet somehow the machinery of language chugs on, oblivious to the contradictions.
You can catch my CBC interview about literally here.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer