A Literal Language Laughingstock or Another Lost Cause for Language (You Choose)

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Image: Creative Commons

“I ate so much Christmas dinner, I literally exploded!” she groaned. Oh, really? And did her organs splatter all over the walls? Coming in from outside she announced, “I can’t take a walk—the snow is literally blinding, and it’s so cold I’m literally frozen to death!” But hey, I guess if she were dead, her inability to see no longer bothered her. “We were housebound for so long,” she proclaimed a few days later, “I was literally climbing the walls!” Well, I guess we’ve found the new Spider Woman!

What this speaker actually meant was that it felt like she might explode, that the extreme brightness of the snow hurt her eyes, and that s/he might have frozen to death if s/he had stayed out in the cold for another week or so. And after being snowbound, she was so antsy that she felt like climbing the walls—but she surely did not, as her use of “literally” implies, actually do any of these!

The misunderstanding and abuse of the word “literally” has gotten completely out of hand—and is now, as noted by the Boston Globe, literally the most misused word in English! People forget that “literally” is defined as “in actual fact, in a strict sense, exactly.” When used correctly, this adverb lets others know we’re serious and are describing our situation accurately, not exaggerating or being metaphorical. When we misuse “literally” as a throwaway intensifier to emphasize the extreme nature of a situation, we instead sound ignorant and confused. “I am literally going crazy” should only be used to explain that I am in therapy and ready to check into an institution.

The word the speaker should have used in these examples is literally’s opposite—namely, “figuratively,” which means to use a figure of speech, such as a metaphor or symbol. When I say, “at 11:00 I turn into a pumpkin,” I am speaking figuratively—not, I hope, literally! I’m using a metaphor for shutting down, becoming inactive like a pumpkin, and perhaps growing surly. A literal translation of “cul de sac” is “bottom of the bag,” but we use it figuratively to refer to a dead-end street. The misuse of the word “literally” in casual conversation is forgivable, but in published writing it is truly offensive. “They’re going to create literally a tidal wave of data,” declared a Washington Post article. I hope you’re ready to get wet!

When we think them through, these blunders become truly absurd. “I’m so hungry, I could literally eat a house!” Might be crunchy! “I was literally starving to death.” Well, your clothes still fit pretty well, considering. “I’ve been waiting on hold for literally a year!” Really? Can you still pay your utility bills? “I literally died laughing!” Really? I didn’t believe in ghosts until now. On the bright side, this widespread carelessness in usage is included in Healthy Way’s “Seven Habits That Make People Seem Less Intelligent” (www.healthyway.com). When you misuse words like literally, “you wind up looking pretentious and foolish,” they explain.

Of course, there are correct ways of using literally. “She was literally soaked to the skin” is simply a statement of fact about someone who has walked through the rain without an umbrella, emphasizing her discomfort. “The city of Detroit literally went bankrupt.” Yup—the city government did, in actual fact, declare bankruptcy.

If you aren’t sure whether you are using literally correctly, simply ask yourself whether what you’re describing actually happened in physical reality, or only in your imagination. And if it didn’t, try rephrasing your sentence using a different intensifier, such as ‘absolutely,’ ‘definitely,’ or ‘unquestionably’: “she was absolutely frozen solid.” The character of Chris Traeger, played by Rob Lowe on the TV sitcom Parks and Rec, highlights the embarrassing ignorance conveyed by this language pitfall by using it often to great comic effect. “This is literally the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” he declares as he downs a cheap burger.

Once you master the meaning of these two terms, you can show off by using them both together. If you and a group of people were sailing in the ocean and an emergency arose, for example, you might say, “I guess we’re all in the same boat—literally and figuratively!” Not only are you actually in the same physical boat with everyone else, but also your situation fits the idiomatic expression meaning you are all facing the same adversity. When a football player twists his knee while trying to prevent a pass interception, a spectator might say “Ouch! And I mean that both literally and figuratively”—literally in that his injury actually causes pain, and figuratively because the team suffers the metaphorical pain of missing the pass, and ultimately a touchdown.

Sadly, this language error has become so prevalent that dictionaries have accepted it as a secondary or informal definition for “literally.” Merriam-Webster online lists as its second definition, “in effect: virtually,” and Google adds to its list of definitions, “informal: used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.”

In other words, over time “literally” has come to mean its opposite! “People are using it in a way that is different than its original meaning,” comments David Haglund of Slate on NPR, implying that the correct reaction is tolerance. “These things change, and we don’t have that much control over them.” Or do we? We can certainly choose to use such words correctly ourselves. “Literally every modern dictionary includes this definition,” states Merriam-Webster, adding, “there is… a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used…. As lexicographers we are in the business of defining language, rather than judging it.”

Bah, humbug! Thank goodness I’m not a lexicographer; I can still defend our beautiful language as it should be used, and avoid confusing illiteracies. To me this is simply more proof that the English language is literally going to hell in a hen basket* (sic)…. can you feel the flames? *see crozetgazette.com/2017/04/07/a-rain-of-terror-for-language-lovers.

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