The oft-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally is nothing new—it’s been around since the 1700s—but do other adverbs behave in the same way? Recent uses of definitely and totally suggest that the linguistic development of literally is not an isolated incident, but a trend. But how old is it? A quick review of the development of literally: In the late 1600s, literally was being used as an emphatic adverb, and the earliest known uses of the figurative literally date from the 1700s. A possible scenario: the stress put on the emphatic sense of literally soon carried over to the ironic sense; the latter, as linguists remind enraged masses, was used by the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens generations before any of us were born. To a certain extent, definitely and totally can be seen to parallel the linguistic development of literally, from literal to emphatic to ironic. Because the ironic uses of definitely and totally are still very new, we’ll look to language innovators such as teens, twenty-somethings and techies for some insight on the use of these terms. Let’s start with definitely. On the teen-girl-geared website Rookiemag.com, one writer’s bio reads as follows: “When she’s not busy writing to support her glamorous waitressing career, you can catch her tweeting, embroidering, blogging, or definitely not reading Food Network fan fiction.” In this example, the original meaning of definitely takes on ironic connotations, resulting in an opposite meaning: This author can, in fact, be caught reading Food Network fan fiction. This activity is a guilty pleasure for the author, and by playing with the sense of definitely, she jokes that she understands how strange her hobby might sound to other people. On the pop-culture site Jezebel, a headline reads “Definitely Legit: Someone Selling Original Monet on Craigslist for $5,000.” The author of this article ironically twists definitely to mean “utterly not”—the statement that follows “definitely legit” is most certainly not “legit.” Totally and definitely are interchangeable in the “definitely legit” construction. In an article on TechCrunch about a disposable phone-number app, the author, with a twinkle in his eye, concludes with “Now, go! Go and use this for totally legit and not at all shady purposes.” Another example of the ironic use of definitely can be found in another Jezebel headline: “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.” The “(because) X definitely need(s) another/more Y” construction also appears with the term totally standing in for definitely. We can see this pattern emerge in product review on Venture Beat headlined “Because we totally need a sensor in our shoe that talks to our phone to tell us to buy new shoes.” The highly snarky article proceeds to make fun of the patent claims of this technology. Why are writers gravitating toward this use of totally and definitely to express sarcasm? The answer lies in a series of maxims for interpreting conversations that we don’t even know we’re following, as first identified by the linguist Paul Grice. These baseline conventions can be flouted to add layers of meaning—sometimes in the form of humor—which is precisely what’s happening in the examples above. One of the Gricean maxims is the Maxim of Relation: be relevant. In the one-sentence Rookiemag bio, it doesn’t make any sense for the writer to talk about things that she doesn’t do (i.e., reading Food Network fanfic). If someone offers information that is not relevant to the discussion, our conversational implicature radars go off. Three possible explanations come to mind:
- Have we overlooked the fact that this information is somehow relevant?
- Is this person really bad at following conventions of conversation?
- Is this person purposely flouting Grice’s maxims for comedic effect?