The English word “literally” was first used in the 16th century, and despite the five hundred years since, its meaning remains pretty much unchanged. That is, until a few years ago when both Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Google suddenly agreed that “literally” had a second meaning that was completely opposite to its first one. Merriam-Webster defines “literally” as both “actually” and “virtually”. “Actually”, as in ‘this meal was literally the only one I had today,’ and “virtually”, as in ‘that is literally the stupidest idea in the history of ideas.*’ In other words, just by how we used a word differently, the meaning of the word “literally” changed, to its polar opposite. This happens more frequently with brand names. “Kleenex”, “Post-It”, “Expo”, “Scantron”, and “Xerox” are all trademarked brand names – ones of the same status as “Timex” or “Samsung” or “YouTube”. But I’m not necessary talking about a copy machine from the company Xerox when I tell someone to “xerox this document”, and I’m not looking for Kleenex-manufactured tissues when I ask for some Kleenex boxes. This is the nightmare of all trademarks, brand dilution. Simply put, it means that the product with that brand name was so successful that it became a name for all of the products in its category. In this case, we, the public, change the meaning of the brand name by how we use it.
I think we unconsciously fall under the illusion that the language defines how we should use it, because of all the times we’re constrained by grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, or the times when we need to look up words in the dictionary to find its meaning or usage. But really, none of that matters outside of the narrow world of academia. (Or else nobody would be reading, let alone studying, Lewis Carroll. He’d be rejected from the English department for all of the words he made up.) Language is defined by how we use it, and we give every word its meaning (or take away from it). But that same idea goes well beyond words or any aspect of language.
Every action that we take, conscious or unconscious, demonstrates how we think about an idea or an object, and that ultimately gives the object its meaning. In other words, literally** everything that has any significance gained that meaning because of the way in which we relate to it, not because of anything inherent to itself. For example, a book, movie, or TV series without its audience and fans hardly has any significance. Take any fan community – I’ll roll with the Harry Potter fans here. Harry Potter, the character and the book, are in themselves no more impressive than e.g. 101 ways to groom your poodle – they’re both ink on paper. Harry Potter only has such a global and impactful effect in the world because of the way millions of people relate to it and love it. But may a more perfect example is sports, every year, over one third of the United States tune in for the final game of the Super Bowl season. Nearly one hundred and twenty million people sit down every year to watch through at least an hour of ads and another hour of rich people milling about on grass for a few dozen minutes of game time, in which said rich people run at each other to get a leather object past lines of paint. All while slightly less rich people pay grands to sit down and look at them up close. That’s not to say sports is meaningless, because the mere fact that hundreds of millions of people watch and participate in it proves that it’s significant, arguably even more than any book or movie series. Sports is the perfect example showing how it’s not an idea itself, but our actions about it, that determine its meaning.
This is the core idea behind any type of marketing or advertising, really. I don’t think anyone can decidedly prove that Coca-Cola produces objectively better drinks than Pepsi. But the way the brand Coca-Cola relates to its consumers not just locally but around the world guarantees that more people drink it and relate to it. The company’s brand ranks as one of the most-loved brands in the world, right up there with Apple and Google. The company itself is rather unremarkable – how exciting can a soft-drink company be? But the ways in which people relate to Coca-Cola the brand is so much more than just as a monolithic soft-drink company. The brand carries with it the spirit of a fun-loving, young audience, and that identity comes from the way people talk about and think about the company. This is what puts Coca-Cola above the likes of Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
But unfortunately, the same idea applies to less capitalistic, more humanitarian ideas. Just as how we think about Apple or the Super Bowl gives them their meaning, the way we think and talk about issues like international conflicts and local , social issues also literally** give those issues their significance. The moment we, the media and the audience, stopped talking about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the disease and those affected by it lost much of the meaning that we gave them through the campaign. For months after the deadly earthquake and disease outbreaks in Haiti, the world paid attention to them and cared for the people there, and in that way we changed what the people and the country of Haiti meant to the world. But the moment we turned our heads and went back to carry on with our lives, we also took away the meaning that we gave them.
More recently, as the country turned to pay attention to the still-present problem of racism, we gave the issue the attention and meaning that it deserved. The fact that we talked about it so intensely for so many weeks brought the issues into the spotlight and made it meaningful. In this way, I think our actions are a perpetual act of voting on what we care about. Every one of our choices either gives or takes away meaning from something, and we’re continually voting as a community on what we think matters to us and what we see as significant to the world. The same power that allows us to change the meaning of the words we use every day also allows us to literally redefine what matters most to us. And I don’t think that’s a power we should take lightly. We give meaning to everything around us, and we should make sure they go to the right places.
* Unfortunately a phrase I encounter far too frequently
** “Literally” here invoked as the first definition, the “actually” one.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Living biographies.
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