…I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So goes the famous quote from The Princess Bride. It’s in reference to the evil mastermind Vizzini’s use of the word “inconceivable,” which he uses to convey his dismay at being followed by a trailing boat approaching closer, among other things. Taken literally, inconceivable means not able to be thought up, created or imagined. Being overtaken by a mystery ship is hardly inconceivable. Perhaps the vastness of the cosmos or the age of the universe are inconceivable to the human mind, but that doesn’t stop Vizzini’s hyperbole.
Speaking of literally, the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries have now authorized a definition for literally that means the except opposite of what literally has always meant. Traditionally, literally has meant “actually.” Whatever followed was the truth to the letter. For example, “After the tornado struck the animal shelter, it literally began to rain cats and dogs.” However, it’s become common usage for “literally” to be an emphasis word: a word used to convey meaning or emotion. When someone says “It’s literally raining cats and dogs outside,” we know that it’s not actually raining cats and dogs. That someone is just emphasizing how hard it’s raining.
However, the grammarians have given in: in Merriam-Webster’s latest revision, they list “virtually” as a synonym for literally. So now, literally can either mean the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or it can mean that someone is making things up. Either way. Whatever. It’s literally the worst etymological decision ever.
Of course, in this “can you top this?” world of talking dogs on YouTube and race-to-the-bottom politics, we’ve been abusing and misusing lots of words for the sake of our own aggrandizement. “That’s incredible!” one might say. Really? Incredible? Not credible? Lacking credibility? A touchdown catch can’t be incredible if you just watched it happen on TV. Remarkable? Sure. You definitely felt the need to remark. But incredible? It’s the same with “unbelievable.” Money growing on trees is unbelievable. That new song on the radio is probably not.
Fantastic? One can easily see the root “fantasy” in fantastic. Unicorns are fantastic. A fantastic meeting with the boss is unlikely, unless he grew wings and flew out the window. Amazing? Have you ever really been amazed? Astonished? What does breathtaking mean? Startling? Shocking
Sadly, these fine words have been ruined by overuse such that there original meanings have been (hopelessly?) watered down. They lack the reverential connotations they once held. A first kiss can be breaktaking; a burgler in the downstairs startling; the view of a solar eclipse by superstitious native tribes, amazing
Hemingway was often accused of writing starkly, lacking flourish and description. But maybe in a world in which literally can also mean “not literally,” we should be more careful about the words we choose and make sure we use the ones that mean what we intend.