The Other "Literally"

When I say "I'm sick to death of your constant bickering", I am not actually claiming that your constant bickering has left me sickly to the point of mortal death, and you know it. This is a common figure of speech. Moreover, if you were to try and criticise this statement by pointing out that it was untrue, owing to my rude health and stubborn habit of not being dead, everyone would think you were being an arse.

In saying "I'm sick to death of your constant bickering", I'm saying something I don't literally mean. I don't expect to be held accountable for it, (at least not the "to death" bit), and everyone is complicit in this. This is fine, and happens for understandable reasons. I'm also not really so hungry that I could eat a horse, and whether Colin could actually organise a piss-up in a brewery is besides the point when assessing his competence. We have an elaborate zoo of literary and rhetorical devices in which we do not say what we literally mean and yet people still understand us. Fine. Fine and peachy.

But there is another type of wordy embuggerance I see people using, where they say something they don't mean and don't expect to be held accountable for it, but they very much should be. I don't have a good name for it, and I don't know how to deal with it. If I had the former but not the latter, I would call it out every time I saw it until my lungs gave way. If I had the latter but not the former, I'd be entirely satisfied with burying it in an unmarked grave.


If you were listening to Romeo waxing poetic about Juliet, and he said "Juliet is the sun", you'd know he wasn't literally saying Juliet is an astronomical ball of plasma approximately 1.4 million kilometres across. You'd surmise that he was employing a figure of speech, because the literal interpretation is absurd.

If he were to say "Juliet is the worst person in the history of the world", you'd probably think that he was using hyperbole. You'd be on slightly shakier ground here, because there is a literal interpretation of his statement that makes sense, but to the best of your knowledge Juliet hasn't committed any genocidal atrocities or instigated any transglobal conflicts.

If he were to say "Juliet thinks she's Ginger Rogers, but she isn't", you would not think that Juliet is experiencing an identity crisis, which Romeo is dutifully reporting. Romeo is probably implying that Juliet has an over-inflated opinion of her own dancing. This is a more impressive inference on your part. If Juliet did think she was Ginger Rogers, and Romeo wanted to express this fact, he'd probably say something like this. In spite of this obstacle, we understand the sentiment he is expressing.

So far, so satisfactorily non-literal. Here is where we cross the threshold.

If Romeo were to say "Juliet expects to get what she wants because she's wealthy and pretty", I wouldn't be sure what to do with this one. On the one hand, it's a factual claim. You could plausibly (and reasonably) interpret it as Romeo asserting that Juliet expects to get what she wants, and that this is caused by some combination of her being wealthy and pretty. As a parseable declarative statement, it's vulnerable to counter-assertions: if Juliet doesn't always expect to get what she wants, if she isn't wealthy or pretty, or if the causal claim between the two doesn't hold, it is false.

On the other hand, you could imagine that Romeo is simply expressing the sentiment "Juliet is spoiled and conceited", or perhaps just "boo Juliet!" If you confronted him on the factual merit of the statement, you could imagine him defensively making further disparaging remarks about Juliet, swigging from his ninth bottle of Blue WKD and shaking his fist at the sky.

This is the wordy embuggerance I'm talking about. On one level it has a plausible literal truth condition with implications if that truth condition is met, and there is no obvious indication that it's not meant to be taken literally. On another level, it is expressing a sentiment the speaker feels passionately about, and you can't take that away from them.


Many years ago, on the lofty philosophical forum known as LiveJournal, I was in a discussion about Stephen Fry. He'd apparently said something disparaging about women, and my interlocutor claimed this was because he was a gay man.

I questioned this. If he wasn't gay, would that have made him less likely to say it? Are other gay men at greater risk of saying these things than heterosexual men? Is his gay-mannitude really the dominant causal factor in making this specific remark about women?

Her response was something along the lines of "well, if you're going to take it to ridiculous extremes..."


I don't think it's taking things to ridiculous extremes to hold people to task on the meaning of what they say and the implications thereof. But there is a problem here. If you refer to that meaning as "the literal meaning", it opens the door for arguments about implied meaning and subjective interpretation and hermeneutic witchcraft that are completely besides the point of not saying things which have readily-available meanings you don't care about.

So what do you call that interpretation if not "the literal interpretation"? The actual meaning? The for-realsies that-which-people-who-care-about-what-words-mean meaning? The woman I was talking to on LiveJournal had a legitimate sentiment about the uniquely-privileged position of gay men (the veracity of which is outside the scope of this post), yet I can't help but feel that sentiment is subordinate to what the words actually mean, and in the absence of it being a common figure of speech, or other indicators that it's not to be taken literally, that's the standard you should hold it to. That doesn't feel like the curmudgeonly insistence of a square-headed logic-warrior. It feels like a sensibly-prescribed method for using words.

My verbal response to that LiveJournal comment was something about how words mean things, how they do important work, and how they aren't just billboards for political causes. My psychological response was to have a part of my mind start screaming, and to this day it hasn't stopped.


Once you start looking for truth conditions, it's hard to stop. The process is quite simple: just ask yourself "what would it mean for this statement to be true?"

Here is an opinion piece from The Independent about how masculine stereotypes are horrible and damaging and generally boo-worthy. I'm not a massive fan of opinion pieces, since reading them will probably not make me smarter, happier, or more well-informed. That said, I'm pretty on-board with this one. A friend of mine shared it on Facebook, along with the following singled-out quote:

...young men need to understand as early in their lives as possible that men have a long history of getting their way for no good reason.

There's a charitable sentiment to extract from this about male privilege, and a slightly less charitable sentiment along the lines of "Go Team Feminism". I don't object to either of these sentiments, but I do object to the statement itself. It seems indefensible from a variety of angles. There are many adjacent statements on much sturdier ground, but the author didn't choose any of those. There are also many less-objectionable sentences in the piece, yet the friend who shared it on Facebook didn't choose any of those either.

Most importantly, if you try and reason with this statement, weird answers will fall out of your reasoning process. This doesn't seem to stop people, though they may as well be reasoning with a flag or a Beach Boys song for all the good it will do. Try it yourself: what would it mean for this statement to be true? What are the necessary conditions for this to be the case? What are the necessary consequences of this? Are these conditions and consequences met and born out by other observable facts about the world, or do they generate conflict? If you assume its truth, can you only generate reasonable implications from this, or does it produce implications that are inconsistent with other things we hold to be true?

If this feels like it's being taken to a ridiculous extreme, I have to ask: why give someone the opportunity to take it there? Reductio ad absurdum isn't something Alice does to Bob that reflects badly on Alice; it's something Bob allows Alice to do that reflects badly on Bob. If you can express a sentiment using literally true statements, (as is quite achievable in the above case), why don't you? If you can't express a sentiment in this way, maybe there's a reason for that.


There's a simple take-away from this post: don't make words that don't mean what you want them to mean. In the words of H.P. Lovecraft, do not call up that which you can not put down.

I would like to think that there are two sorts of people in the world: those who value precise, meaningful discourse evaluated by a common standard, and those who don't. That way we could slowly convert the latter into the former. Unfortunately, I don't think the world is that tidy. Plenty of smart people will throw words around without stopping to consider what those words mean. I can't see this being good, and I'm not sure how to convince them to do otherwise.

It feels like it's a straightforward question: "what would it mean for this statement to be true?" Having an answer for this question in response to the statements you make feels like a reasonable minimal standard, but I can appreciate it's quite hard to live up to. Still, as mental habits go, it's a powerful one to cultivate.

Say it to yourself a few more times: what would it mean for this statement to be true? For the next five claims someone makes, ask it to yourself and see what happens.

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