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  #1  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:03 PM
Rigamarole Rigamarole is offline
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Are there any words that have come to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning?

Most words' meanings change over time but can you think of any that have done a complete 180 and evolved to mean just the opposite of what they first (or once) meant? I can't think of any off the top of my head but I'm sure some of the brilliant linguists out here can come up with something.

It's OK to stretch the concept of a word to include its etymological root words if needed.
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  #2  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:08 PM
SenorBeef SenorBeef is offline
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"Literally" is almost always used exactly opposite of what it's supposed to mean when it's used to emphasize something.
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  #3  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:13 PM
Leaffan Leaffan is offline
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Sick!
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  #4  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:20 PM
handsomeharry handsomeharry is offline
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I am thinking of the word 'infer.'

It used to mean to understand something that was being implied. Now, too many people us it to mean 'imply.' Some dictionaries, for second or tertiary preferences, now, also list it as meaning imply.


Best wishes,
hh
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  #5  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:24 PM
stuyguy stuyguy is offline
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The most unnerving example I can think of -- unnerving to me, because I am a science geek, and I hate how people misuse science terms -- is the term "eye of the storm."

People use it to describe the most chaotic or dangerous position in an unpleasant situation. That is utterly wrong. The eye of a real storm is dead calm, not wild.
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  #6  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:24 PM
Squink Squink is offline
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Sanguine wanders off on that axis in its bloodthirsty incarnation.
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  #7  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:31 PM
Lance Turbo Lance Turbo is offline
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Decimate used to mean to kill one out of every ten and now it generally is used to convey the concept of near total destruction.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/_/d...?word=decimate
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  #8  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:31 PM
LSLGuy LSLGuy is online now
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Thre's always flammable / inflammable.

The linguistically correct term for something which catches fire easily is inflammable. But too many Troo Bloo 'Merkins though that meant non-catch-on-fire-able, which is of course opposite to the real meaning.

So the nice safety folks invented the bastard word flammable to mean the same as what inflammable really means and the opposite of what the general foolish populace thinks inflammable means.
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  #9  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:33 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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"Nice" originally meant "pedantic, nitpicking". If you called someone's comment "a nice distinction," you were not being complimentary.
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  #10  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:35 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by handsomeharry View Post
I am thinking of the word 'infer.'

It used to mean to understand something that was being implied. Now, too many people us it to mean 'imply.' Some dictionaries, for second or tertiary preferences, now, also list it as meaning imply.


Best wishes,
hh
I infer that you're complaining about people ignoring the distinction between "infer" and "imply." Or did you imply that?
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  #11  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:35 PM
BigT BigT is online now
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Originally Posted by SenorBeef View Post
"Literally" is almost always used exactly opposite of what it's supposed to mean when it's used to emphasize something.
I wish people would stop saying this. The opposite meaning would be figuratively, and you cannot replace the usage with that word. The meaning of the word is the use of emphasis, just like "really" before it. Do you argue that "really" means the opposite of "in a real manner"?
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  #12  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:38 PM
running coach running coach is online now
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Par.
In golf, it's good to be below par. Out in the real world, below/sub par means a poor performance or not feeling well.
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  #13  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:51 PM
bardos bardos is offline
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funny
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  #14  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:54 PM
Inner Stickler Inner Stickler is online now
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Cleave. It's actually a weird one because it means both to split apart and stick together.
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  #15  
Old 06-26-2010, 05:56 PM
Dan Norder Dan Norder is offline
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There has to be a zillion of these...

Terrific went from very bad or frightful to quite great.

Dude used to mean a well dressed dandy and now, thanks to surfer culture, typically means just about the opposite.

Artificial didn't used to have the negative connotations and was often complimentary.

Politically speaking, some older references to liberal or Republican are distinctly opposite to the current meanings.
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  #16  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:00 PM
bardos bardos is offline
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gay
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  #17  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:00 PM
Napier Napier is offline
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A "temper" used to be a personality feature that helped a person resist getting angry but is often used now to mean the opposite.

To "comprise" used to mean to include, so "my country comprises 50 smaller states", but now is usually used as if it meant "compose", which describes the same action but with the object and subject reversed. That is, (correctly) "my country is composed of 50 smaller states", or (incorrectly) "my country is comprised of 50 smaller states". I think it was Jimmy Carter who first used the word this way in a highly visible forum.
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  #18  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:04 PM
Oglomott Oglomott is offline
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"Bad". Used to mean bad. Now it could mean good, very good, or great.
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  #19  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:06 PM
SenorBeef SenorBeef is offline
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Originally Posted by BigT View Post
I wish people would stop saying this. The opposite meaning would be figuratively, and you cannot replace the usage with that word.
So what if you couldn't replace the usage with that word? You could, it would just sound awkward, but it would be accurate at least. I don't know how your objection means it's somehow correct to use exactly the wrong word in that situation.

If someone says "it took literally forever for me to get out of that traffic jam", how could the term literally possibly be correct there? This is exactly the sort of thing that the OP is looking for as far as I know.
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  #20  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:06 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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And as "terrific" went one way, it waved to "awful" going the other. There's a very old hymn that begins "Before Jehovah's awful throne..." -- meaning, roughly, "awe-inspiring" in modern terms.
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  #21  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:31 PM
Anachronism Anachronism is offline
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Originally Posted by BigT View Post
I wish people would stop saying this. The opposite meaning would be figuratively, and you cannot replace the usage with that word. The meaning of the word is the use of emphasis, just like "really" before it. Do you argue that "really" means the opposite of "in a real manner"?
If some one says 'I literally jumped a mile' but they really mean 'I figuratively jumped a mile' it doesn't work?
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  #22  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:39 PM
BorgHunter BorgHunter is offline
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Originally Posted by LSLGuy View Post
Thre's always flammable / inflammable.

The linguistically correct term for something which catches fire easily is inflammable. But too many Troo Bloo 'Merkins though that meant non-catch-on-fire-able, which is of course opposite to the real meaning.

So the nice safety folks invented the bastard word flammable to mean the same as what inflammable really means and the opposite of what the general foolish populace thinks inflammable means.
Inflammable means flammable?! What a country!
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  #23  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:40 PM
KinkiNipponTourist KinkiNipponTourist is offline
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Originally Posted by LSLGuy View Post
Thre's always flammable / inflammable.

The linguistically correct term for something which catches fire easily is inflammable. But too many Troo Bloo 'Merkins though that meant non-catch-on-fire-able, which is of course opposite to the real meaning.

So the nice safety folks invented the bastard word flammable to mean the same as what inflammable really means and the opposite of what the general foolish populace thinks inflammable means.
Damn! Beat me to it, and explained it better than I would have. *tips hat* Nicely done.
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  #24  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:43 PM
toadspittle toadspittle is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SenorBeef View Post
So what if you couldn't replace the usage with that word? You could, it would just sound awkward, but it would be accurate at least. I don't know how your objection means it's somehow correct to use exactly the wrong word in that situation.

If someone says "it took literally forever for me to get out of that traffic jam", how could the term literally possibly be correct there? This is exactly the sort of thing that the OP is looking for as far as I know.
Your example is different though—the word's usage is just wrong. Perhaps the usage is evolving to the point where it will soon have completely flipped meaning, but it still retains its original meaning for most people.

You still frequently hear things like, "I laughed so hard that I peed my pants! Well, not literally."

The person in your example is simply an idiot. (Sadly, given enough time, idiots make usage...)

My favorite flip: Fast. It used to mean immovable. Now it means to move at great speed. "Hold fast!" is the last vestige of it, but it's kind of only used anchronistically; "fasten" or "fastener", though, still survive with original meaning.

Last edited by toadspittle; 06-26-2010 at 06:44 PM..
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  #25  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:46 PM
runcible spoon runcible spoon is offline
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Originally Posted by Anachronism View Post
If some one says 'I literally jumped a mile' but they really mean 'I figuratively jumped a mile' it doesn't work?
They don't, though - they mean, "I jumped a fucking mile". While that is a figurative use, they're not using the word 'literally' because they want everyone to know that they're speaking figuratively.
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  #26  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:46 PM
toadspittle toadspittle is offline
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Originally Posted by LSLGuy View Post
Thre's always flammable / inflammable.

The linguistically correct term for something which catches fire easily is inflammable. But too many Troo Bloo 'Merkins though that meant non-catch-on-fire-able, which is of course opposite to the real meaning.

So the nice safety folks invented the bastard word flammable to mean the same as what inflammable really means and the opposite of what the general foolish populace thinks inflammable means.
What we really need is an UN-flammable. That would make the distinction clearer. ("Uninflammable" doesn't really sound right... but then, I can imagine "Uninflatable" existing, so maybe it's got promise.)
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  #27  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:48 PM
bonzer bonzer is offline
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Originally Posted by Rigamarole View Post
Most words' meanings change over time but can you think of any that have done a complete 180 and evolved to mean just the opposite of what they first (or once) meant?
Just running with the notion of "a complete 180", how about revolution? It's a complicated story, but one rather well mapped out.

In classical and medieval times, it was essentially a technical term in astronomy meaning a rotation through 360 degrees. Hence Copernicus's De Revolutionibus. Then, in England in the 17th century, the term gets attached to major political events. But part of that sense is that the likes of the Glorious Revolution are events returning the polity to a previously existing state. But the fact that such events are also seen as unprecidented eventually bleeds into the sense that a "revolution" is an overturning of the prevailing state of affairs. The 360 degrees rotation sense becomes a 180 degrees upheaval one.
By the 20th century, the overturning/upheaval/"complete 180" meaning had become the default, with no implication of anything returning to anything.
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  #28  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:55 PM
Anachronism Anachronism is offline
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Originally Posted by runcible spoon View Post
They don't, though - they mean, "I jumped a fucking mile". While that is a figurative use, they're not using the word 'literally' because they want everyone to know that they're speaking figuratively.
I have heard literally tons of people use the word literally when they are speaking figuratively.
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  #29  
Old 06-26-2010, 06:59 PM
Kamino Neko Kamino Neko is offline
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They're not using it to MEAN figuratively, though.

They're using it WRONG, but as a simple intensifier, not to mean the opposite of what it really means.
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  #30  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:00 PM
SenorBeef SenorBeef is offline
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To say "literally" when they mean exactly the opposite of literally, ie it didn't really happen they're just saying it that way to make a point, then it is the opposite.

It's such a common error that some commie traitor dictionaries are including that usage, so I think it falls under the OP's reequest.
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  #31  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:04 PM
elfkin477 elfkin477 is offline
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Moot. It used to mean something worth arguing about.
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  #32  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:11 PM
Northern Piper Northern Piper is offline
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Still does. In most law schools, students do moots - that is, a learning exercise of arguing a debatable point of law. The profs who set the moot always choose a topic that is not clear cut, to give both sides something to advance in their favour, while responding to the arguments advanced by the other side.

"Moot" has another meaning, of course - that because of a more recent development, the point raised by litigation need not be decided, as the case has become moot. However, that does not necessarily mean the point in issue has been settled, but rather, that because of a factual development, or a related development in the law, the court declines to deal with that particular case.
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  #33  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:17 PM
minor7flat5 minor7flat5 is offline
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Nonplussed
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  #34  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:23 PM
thelurkinghorror thelurkinghorror is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LSLGuy View Post
Thre's always flammable / inflammable.

The linguistically correct term for something which catches fire easily is inflammable. But too many Troo Bloo 'Merkins though that meant non-catch-on-fire-able, which is of course opposite to the real meaning.

So the nice safety folks invented the bastard word flammable to mean the same as what inflammable really means and the opposite of what the general foolish populace thinks inflammable means.
The word "flammable" goes back to 1805-1815 or so. I don't think it was created by "safety folks." I can't figure out if it was of American origin, the US was an incredibly new country at the time, although it is true that it really took off there.
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  #35  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:31 PM
Rysto Rysto is offline
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The original meaning of "bemused" was "confused". Now, presumably because it sounds so similar, many people use it to mean "amused". Not exactly the opposite, but quite a difference.
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  #36  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:56 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
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The classic example is the story (probably apocryphal) that, when she saw Christopher Wren's rebuilt version of St. Paul's Cathedral, Queen Anne said it as "awful, artificial, and amusing." The words were all meant as complements -- "awe-inspiring," "artistic," and "riveting."
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  #37  
Old 06-26-2010, 07:57 PM
OldGuy OldGuy is offline
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Originally Posted by toadspittle View Post
What we really need is an UN-flammable. That would make the distinction clearer. ("Uninflammable" doesn't really sound right... but then, I can imagine "Uninflatable" existing, so maybe it's got promise.)
We have it in a way, but it's NON-flammable.
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  #38  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:16 PM
Superhal Superhal is offline
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The bomb: I remember this one as it happened ~1988. In verb, infinitive, or gerund form, it means something bad or getting bad. Suddenly, the noun form meant the best or something very good, e.g. The blueberry pie is the bomb.

Diva: used to mean an expert singer, now it means a spoiled brat.

becoming a tenor: literally means to go to Juliard or something and studying how to sing, but now it means to get hit in the testicles or get your testicles cut off.
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  #39  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:20 PM
toadspittle toadspittle is offline
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Originally Posted by OldGuy View Post
We have it in a way, but it's NON-flammable.
Good one. I don't hear/see it often enough for it to come to the top of my mind.
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  #40  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:23 PM
toadspittle toadspittle is offline
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Originally Posted by Rysto View Post
The original meaning of "bemused" was "confused". Now, presumably because it sounds so similar, many people use it to mean "amused". Not exactly the opposite, but quite a difference.
Maybe the language is evolving to a gradation of "-musement":

Amusement = quite funny
Bemusement = sort of funny
Cemusement = only of average funniness
Demusement = not especially funny
Efmusement = unfunny
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  #41  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:25 PM
mittu mittu is offline
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No discussion of the usage of the word 'literally' would be complete without a link to the xkcd comic.

I don't think the word 'gay' would count as 'happy' is not the opposite of 'homosexual', in fact a lot of homosexual people seem quite pleased about it!

Also not quite filling the OP requirements but worthy of note is the fact (according to Q.I.) that boys used to be called girls. Specifically boys would be called 'knave girls' and girls would be called 'gay girls'. The word 'boy' originally meaning a servant.

ETA: I have only ever heard 'bemused' to mean the same as 'confused'. You would get a bemused look from me if you used it to mean amused.

Last edited by mittu; 06-26-2010 at 08:26 PM..
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  #42  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:42 PM
newme newme is offline
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"With"
In Old English, the meaning of the word was "against, in opposition to." It is a cognate of the German word wieder. It retains this original meaning in the compound word withstand.
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  #43  
Old 06-26-2010, 08:50 PM
Princhester Princhester is offline
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Originally Posted by mittu View Post
ETA: I have only ever heard 'bemused' to mean the same as 'confused'. You would get a bemused look from me if you used it to mean amused.
It seems in my experience to mean what one feels when someone else does something amusingly confusing.

So for example if someone says something then later contradicts themselves for entirely self serving reasons, you might say "I am bemused by your most recent statement, ten minutes ago you were saying the exact opposite".
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  #44  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:05 PM
njtt njtt is online now
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Originally Posted by Anachronism View Post
If some one says 'I literally jumped a mile' but they really mean 'I figuratively jumped a mile' it doesn't work?
No. The (intended, and usually perfectly well understood) meaning of the first sentence is not the same as the meaning of the second. In the first case, "literally" is being used figuratively (note, being used figuratively is not the same as being used to mean "figuratively") to act as intensifier. In the second case, "figuratively" acts as a 'de-intensifier'.* The second statement is much weaker than the first (with just "I jumped a mile," somewhere in between).

Although "literally" is often used in this intensifying way with figurative expressions, it is not being used to call attention to their figurativeness (as "figuratively" always does). Indeed, it can perfectly well be used in this way with quite literal descriptions. If someone says "It was literally enormous," they certainly do not mean "It was figuratively enormous." Neither, however, are they using "literally" for it's original purpose: to disambiguate expressions that might otherwise be mistakenly taken as figurative. There is no risk of such confusion over the word "enormous" here. "Literally" is being used as an intensifier, as in the first case.

It is true that "literally" has acquired a colloquial secondary meaning, its intensifying function, that sometimes, when it is used together with figurative expressions, seems at odds with original (and still active) meaning. However, that secondary meaning is not equivalent to "figuratively" (i.e., the opposite of "literally" in its original sense), it is equivalent to something like "very, very much."**

To say that "literally" has come to mean "figuratively" is a witty way of remarking on the paradoxical ambiguity that some uses of "literally" can give rise to (at least, it was witty the first few thousand times it was said). But wit is no guarantee of truth, and in this case it is simply serving to promulgate a falsehood.

*That may not be a real word, but you know what I mean.

**The fact that I cannot think of an entirely satisfactory paraphrase, that will work in all contexts, rather nicely demonstrates why the language actually needs a word with the intensifying function that "literally' has in its secondary sense.

Last edited by njtt; 06-26-2010 at 09:09 PM..
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  #45  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:08 PM
heathen earthling heathen earthling is offline
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Originally Posted by Inner Stickler View Post
Cleave. It's actually a weird one because it means both to split apart and stick together.
I've heard of this, but I don't think I've ever encountered the "stick together" meaning. Is it only for a specific context or something?
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  #46  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:14 PM
Princhester Princhester is offline
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Originally Posted by SenorBeef View Post
To say "literally" when they mean exactly the opposite of literally, ie it didn't really happen they're just saying it that way to make a point, then it is the opposite.
I don't think you've got the point being made, yet. The current common usage is not using "literally" to mean its opposite (ie figuratively) it is using "literally" as a means of emphasising a simile. It is used to suggest that the simile is close to not being a simile but actually being comparable to the subject.

Examples with explanation of what is being implied in each case:

1 Simple simile: "I saw a mouse as big as a house"
[meaning: it was a big mouse, but of course you know that I'm making a simile because mice don't get as big as houses]

2 Emphasised simile: "I saw a mouse that was literally as big as a house" [meaning: it a big mouse, but of course you know that I'm using a simile because mice don't get as big as houses, but I'm really emphasising how much like the size of a house it was by pretending that it actually was the size of a house, although it wasn't]

3 Simile with explicit recognition that it is a simile: "I saw a mouse that was figuratively as big as a house"
[meaning: it was a big mouse, but I'm explicitly letting you know that I am using a simile and that it wasn't as big as a house]

If people meant the opposite of "literally" in this context, then the implication in examples 2 and 3 above would be the same, but it is not.
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  #47  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:22 PM
njtt njtt is online now
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Originally Posted by mittu View Post
Also not quite filling the OP requirements but worthy of note is the fact (according to Q.I.) that boys used to be called girls. Specifically boys would be called 'knave girls' and girls would be called 'gay girls'.
Wow that is confusing, especially as, these days, gay girls tend to be the ones who are more likely to be more like boys.

(I am not sure I believe it, though. I would like to see a proper cite.)

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Originally Posted by mittu View Post
I have only ever heard 'bemused' to mean the same as 'confused'. You would get a bemused look from me if you used it to mean amused.
I agree. I think that using "bemused" to mean "amused" still falls into the category of stupid mistake rather than evolution of the language. I suppose you never can tell, but I don't see much sign that it is likely to become entrenched.

Last edited by njtt; 06-26-2010 at 09:25 PM..
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  #48  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:26 PM
Inner Stickler Inner Stickler is online now
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Originally Posted by heathen earthling View Post
I've heard of this, but I don't think I've ever encountered the "stick together" meaning. Is it only for a specific context or something?
Not really. It's just becoming archaic if it's not already. Really both uses are pretty archaic with the coming apart meaning only showing up in cleaving something in twain and cloven hoof but you can cleave to a person or idea to mean that you stick closely to it.

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"With"
In Old English, the meaning of the word was "against, in opposition to." It is a cognate of the German word wieder. It retains this original meaning in the compound word withstand.
I fight with Janie.
I fight with Janie against Derek.

I like with. It's schizophrenic or something.

Sanction means to permit or to forbid.
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  #49  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:31 PM
Left Hand of Dorkness Left Hand of Dorkness is online now
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Originally Posted by Princhester View Post
I don't think you've got the point being made, yet. The current common usage is not using "literally" to mean its opposite (ie figuratively) it is using "literally" as a means of emphasising a simile. It is used to suggest that the simile is close to not being a simile but actually being comparable to the subject.

Examples with explanation of what is being implied in each case:

1 Simple simile: "I saw a mouse as big as a house"
[meaning: it was a big mouse, but of course you know that I'm making a simile because mice don't get as big as houses]

2 Emphasised simile: "I saw a mouse that was literally as big as a house" [meaning: it a big mouse, but of course you know that I'm using a simile because mice don't get as big as houses, but I'm really emphasising how much like the size of a house it was by pretending that it actually was the size of a house, although it wasn't]
Agreed, and it really burns me up when people complain about this. I mean, folks, you're seriously getting your panties in a twist over nothing, here. You know what folks mean. It's literally mickey mouse stuff.

For example, you probably know that "literally," "really," and "seriously" in the above paragraph all fulfill the same function. They're practically synonyms. But it's trendy for people with a modicum of understanding of grammar to engage in recreational outrage over "literally," whereas nobody would consider engaging in RO over "really" or "seriously."
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  #50  
Old 06-26-2010, 09:34 PM
pulykamell pulykamell is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SenorBeef View Post
If someone says "it took literally forever for me to get out of that traffic jam", how could the term literally possibly be correct there?
Because it's a figure of speech, an emphatic, a form of hyperbole. It's not meant to be taken, you know, literally.
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