Definitely and totally: sarcasm and Gricean maxims, not quite hyperbole like literally

Are "Definitely" and "Totally" the New "Literally"?

Are "Definitely" and "Totally" the New "Literally"?

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Oct. 6 2014 1:45 PM

Are "Definitely" and "Totally" the New "Literally"?

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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.http://blog.dictionary.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif 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:

  1. Have we overlooked the fact that this information is somehow relevant?

  2. Is this person really bad at following conventions of conversation?

  3. Is this person purposely flouting Grice’s maxims for comedic effect?

Not to kill the writer’s joke, but that’s exactly what it is: a joke.

There’s also Grice’s Maxims of Quality and Manner. Respectively, that's: Do not say what you believe to be false, and be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity). In the "definitely/totally legit" examples, the writers clearly do not believe that a real Monet is being sold or that disposable phone numbers are associated with anything other than shady purposes. Again we can cycle through the possibilities. Do these writers believe this to be true? (No.) Are these writers bad at expressing themselves with the conventions of conversation? (If they write for a living, hopefully not.) Might the writers be intentionally flouting what is expected of them in the pursuit of comedy? (Yes.)

But if something is actually true, normally it's sufficient to just say so ("be brief")—you don't need to add extra emphasis unless you're arguing with someone. In fact, a less emphatic statement ("this Monet is legit") might make people think that the writers actually believed it (compare "this Monet is totally legit, for real, I swear").  And the same thing goes for the expression "(because) X definitely/totally need(s) another/more Y." If these writers actually needed more useless things, they could just say it. And since we're assuming that they're not trying to deceive us, they must be being sarcastic. This is humor, not materialism.

So although definitely and totally appear to be increasingly used in ironic contexts, they're really just the latest examples of a more general process that's at least as old as Shakespeare ("methinks thou dost protest too much"). While the public eye might be focusing on hyperbolic literally, there are other non-literal adverbs like definitely and totally that are just waiting to be explored. And we totally won't spoil any jokes in the process. Nope. Definitely not.

A version of this post appeared on Dictionary.com.