By Adam Katz
One of my two or three favorite professors in college was Barbara Jeanne Fields. I want to spend all of my time saying everything I know about her, because she amazing and has an amazing life-story, but suffice the subject of today’s musing is professor’s Fields’s conservative feelings about the written word in English. She once bemoaned to me that the word ‘literally’ no longer means ‘literally;’ that people say ‘quotation’ when they mean ‘citation.’
Two examples. That’s all you get.
She was—and is—a writer of several decades’ standing; so long that the craft she had been at such pains to hone had changed beneath her feet. Words no longer meant, towards the end of her career, what they had meant at the beginning.
So what do you do when you have a mentor figure, and you learn so much from them, but there’s something you have a basic disagreement with them on? I would not know how to write, period, without her guidance, but I have since come to disagree with her frustrations regarding the changing meanings of words. I had a realization about ‘literally’ some time after our talk on that subject. The realization came up, I think, because almost our exact conversation, plus some corporate haggling, made its way into an Aaron Sorkin script.
Around the time we lost the word literally (though some friends and I tried to make ‘liguratively’ catch on) we started hearing people say ‘legit.’ It’s almost a 1:1 replacement. You can say ‘he legit can’t do the job’ where a more tradition-bound person might say ‘he is literally incapable of doing the job.’ So that’s that. In academic papers one still has to say ‘literally,’ but in conversation, when I wouldn’t be clear whether the word ‘literally’ means ‘literally’ or ‘figuratively,’ we can clarify by instead saying ‘legit.’
So here’s my question. At what point will ‘legit’ replace ‘literally’ in academic writing? You might scoff and say “never!” But remember that there was probably some Londoner in the year 1100 saying: “Beef? But I eat cow! Damn these Normans!” And we all know how well that turned out.