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Cultural Indigestion: ‘Literally’ and Miley Cyrus

When dictionaries fail us, and Jody Rosen on the MTV Video Music Awards

Adam Chandler
August 26, 2013
Miley Cyrus performs at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards(Rick Diamond/Getty Images for MTV)
Miley Cyrus performs at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards(Rick Diamond/Getty Images for MTV)

If you missed the MTV Video Music Awards last night—I didn’t watch, but I wouldn’t say I missed it (wakka wakka)—then you’ve likely been hearing bemused commentary around the water cooler about what happened. Inflaming passions most was last night’s performance by 20-year-old Miley Cyrus, the former Disney star, whose seductive (?) over-the-top performance (?) has been assailed by seemingly everyone, including Mika Brzezinski, who could not be steered in talking about Syria on Morning Joe earlier today because she was so disturbed by Cyrus.

Tablet contributor Jody Rosen, who helped lead the way on our 100 Greatest Jewish Films feature, offered this explanation of last night’s controversy.

A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.

In other millennial-related horrors, William Safire’s worst nightmare has come true. The abuse of the word ‘literally’ has finally claimed its final casualty: the English language. Rather than stem the tide of the popular misappropriation of the word ‘literally’ to mean things that are very obviously figurative, the dictionaries that were long thought to be guardians of language are just going to let popular culture have this one.

But people increasingly use “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, as in: “My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of literally to mean just the opposite.”

Indeed, Ragan’s PR Daily reported last week that Webster, Macmillan Dictionary, and Google have added this latter informal use of “literally” as part of the word’s official definition. The Cambridge Dictionary has also jumped on board.

How was your weekend?

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

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