Sunday, 19 April 2015

Physically the new literally

Usual disclaimer: while I am talking about the language use of actual people, it's in the spirit of interested observation and not at all critical, and the examples used here are made up but based on real ones.

You'll have noticed that quite a lot of people get upset about the use of literally when it's used non-literally (though, as Jesse Sheidlower notes (thanks to Stan Carey for alerting me to this) its literal use is rarely very literal).

I've recently noticed what I think might be a similar phenomenon in student assignments. They need to express something precisely and explicitly, but they lack the skills to do it quite right. For instance, we asked them to say whether a phrase some books was 'referential' in a particular sentence or not. The correct answer needed to point out that as the sentence included a past tense verb, referring to an event that had already happened at the time of utterance, there had to be certain specific books that were found and the phrase was, therefore, referential. Many of the students could see this and got basically the right answer, but didn't realise that it was the verb tense that was the thing to mention, and instead fumbled around a bit with this kind of thing:
There are some actual books that Mara physically found.
Given that this is a fictional world and a made-up sentence, this cannot be true. But you know what they mean, don't you? This is where the line blurs between actually literally literal use and actually not-very-literal use (and just look how non-actual 'actual' is nearly every time it's used).

I mentioned this on twitter and people responded with examples like this:
@johnthejack also noted that he thought this usage began with things like I physically can't do that, where it's more or less literal but starting to have its meaning bleached, and then expanded into more and more abstract territory, as is generally the case when words change their meaning.

A quick look at a twitter snapshot from today (19th April 2015) shows that most of the time, it's used in opposition to mentally:
I'm mentally and physically exhausted
Or to refer to the body:
I'm going to paint it on you - physically on you 
Sometimes, it's emphasising that the person really does mean 'in real life' where there might be the possibility for ambiguity (which indicates that it's already well on the way to metaphorical use):
He physically hit me
Sometimes, it's referring to 'in real life' but as an exaggeration for comic effect:
It doesn't matter how cold my feet are, I'm physically incapable of wearing socks to bed. I like them to just cover my toes with heels out. (@geekhag)
There's also a lot of use of the set phrases physically sick and physically attracted to, which can be interpreted literally or with physically as an intensifier. This leads to the use of the phrase physically impossible, where it also may or may not be an intensifier.

I also noticed this nice metalinguistic comment:
My favourite is when people say things like "Physically murdered." @jake_lach)
While physically seems to me to have pretty much the same meaning as actually, there are others going through the process with slightly different effects:
Stan thought this is 'typically used to stress agreement or the truth or facts about something'.

I should point out that all of these are non-academic language and so shouldn't be used in assignments, but that's another matter. I'm not saying anything more about this just now, but let it be noted and I'll keep an eye out for it, and see how it develops. Will it sneak in unnoticed, or will people start to get annoyed about it as they do with literally?

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