Word Nerd 2: Stop it! You’re driving me nuts! Literally.

I thought it was just a rash. Just leave it and it will go away, I thought. But of course I had to scratch it. I should have listened to my mother. Now it seems to be breaking out all over: in casual conversation, where there has always been a mild infection, and amongst heartily be-suited businessmen. But more worryingly now, it’s got into my TV. In fact it’s all over my TV. It has infected the presenters on the news show I watch in the morning, and interviewers of all stripes. Professional broadcasters who ought to know better.

I fear it has gone beyond a simple rash. We are now facing an epidemic, and if we don’t get it under control soon, a pandemic. What worries me is a cross-over infection to print. Once it reaches print, we’re doomed. There will be no way back.

Not literally of course – not doomed in the sense that we’re in mortal danger. I’m talking (ahem…writing) metaphorically. Doomed to listen, for example, to a woman who told me she was “literally frozen”.

Well, I’m sorry my dear, but you are either a) mistaken, or b) dead. If a) read on. If b), stop bothering me and find an old boyfriend to haunt.

Strangely enough the word literally literally means literally. It doesn’t mean figuratively, or metaphorically. It means what it says. It’s sometimes useful because there are certain terms of phrase which are most commonly used figuratively. If I said: “He hit the roof, literally.” it would be performing a useful function – telling the person I’m talking to that I’m not, in this case, using a common metaphor for anger, but really describing what happened.

So, by all means use it if you want to clarify what might otherwise be ambiguous. If the robin in your garden is perching on a garden fork and suddenly flies away, then he has “literally flown off the handle,” and it’s useful to know that I don’t have to beware an angry bird in the back yard.

If you’re tempted to tell me you’re “literally starving,” think again. You’re probably not. One person in a million on this planet is literally starving, and I’m pretty sure you’re not one of them.

So, point 1, don’t use the word literally when you’re actually speaking figuratively.

Most people know enough to avoid the point 1 trap. And there are enough of us annoying word nerds out there to keep the others in line most of the time.

Point 2 is a little more subtle: it’s the growing use of the word literally as an intensifier. The breakfast show host I mentioned earlier provides a good example. She was interviewing a student who had survived a storm at sea. The boat, a fully-rigged yacht, had been blow over once, and righted itself, but the second time it blew over, it didn’t come back up. The interview provided enough context and detail that when the interviewer said “and the boat sank” we knew there was little chance she was speaking metaphorically. But she still added ‘literally’ at the end of the statement.

You might think I can’t complain that she shouldn’t be using literally here, because the boat really did sink. You’d be wrong. It’s completely redundant. It didn’t clarify an otherwise ambiguous statement for us. It was clear the boat really sank. We’d just heard all about the storm and been told the students were abandoning ship in fear of their lives.

So why use the word in this context at all? What seems to be happening is people are using literally as an intensifier. It’s like an exclamation mark. The boat sank!!!!! The problem is, when we habitually use the word in this way it robs it of its real purpose. It encourages abuses like ‘literally starving’ because we’ve so over-used ‘starving’ as a metaphor for hunger that we need a stronger alternative, and ‘literally starving’ is it.

So Point 2: don’t use the word as an intensifier. It’s supposed to be used as a qualifier. It’s supposed to make things clearer. If you use it to add intensity to what you’re saying you’re probably making things less clear. If you’re speaking metaphorically you shouldn’t be using the word anyway, and if you’re not, it’s probably redundant to tell us so, because most of the time it will be perfectly clear to us.

Point in question: that same TV presenter (I swear I’m not picking on her) was interviewing The Wiggles, and said they had “literally just flown in from Australia.”

What did the word literally tell us we wouldn’t have known without it? Probably that they had arrived at that minute (which was probably not the case). But I find myself wondering if she means to tell me that, in addition to a fine line in childrens’ entertainment these talented Aussies are superheroes who can actually fly.

I’m going now. I have a whole other can of worms I need to open. Literally.


2 responses to “Word Nerd 2: Stop it! You’re driving me nuts! Literally.

  1. Google says: define:literally
    1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly: “the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the traffic circle”.
    2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

    Language is evolving. The meaning of literally is changing; the use of it for emphasis has become so common as to make it correct. It’s an interesting evolution – using literally about something that the listener knows cannot be literally true is a way of making it seem to be almost so. The literal claim close to being true that it is almost literally so. In a way it plays a similar role to “it was as if our eyes were glued to the TV”.

    Of course if you take that sentence literally it is also meaningless – if it were really as if your eyes were glued to the TV then you would be so close as to be unable to watch it, for example. The glue would also render your eyes pretty ineffective, so this phrase is gibberish if you take its meaning too literally. The intention of the phrase is to say that the way the eyes are fixed to the TV is similar in some senses to the way that they would be fixed if they were glued, and different in many others. This meaning is obvious to all but the most literal thinkers among us!

    The same goes for this use of literally as an intensifier. The intention of the phrase “our eyes were literally glued to the TV” is clear to the listener – there is no misunderstanding. It is a very intense use of language and could be very effective when employed in an appropriate circumstance.

    Unfortunately the very thing that makes it acceptable (it’s use) also leads to it ineffectiveness; it becomes overused so the meaning becomes diluted – in the same way that swear words lose their impact simply by being used.

  2. Ben makes a very good point. Common usage does indeed trump dictionary definitions, and words evolve. I just posted a short piece today about gamut – originally a musical term referring to the lowest note in the register, whose original meaning is now almost completely forgotten. Some words, indeed, come to mean the very opposite of their original use (through irony, or some other mechanism).
    Unspeakable is a good example. In the Authorised (King James) Version of the bible, it is used (a total of three times) to express something so good that it was impossible to describe how good it was (see 2Cor 9:15). Although dictionaries still list that ‘good’ meaning, nobody now uses it in that sense. If someone calls your behaviour unspeakable, it’s not a compliment.
    Sometimes this twisting of meaning is conscious, an attempt at irony, and at masking a meaning or confusing an uninformed listener. So, for example, youth culture is always coming up with new synonyms for good, and some of them are actually commonly understood as far from good (bad and wicked spring to mind). Such usage is not common, it’s tribal – it marks you out as a member of some social or demographic group. It’s an extremely volatile and fast moving part of language evolution, because it is a kind of shibboleth. As soon as people in the world at large crack the code and start to use it, the word becomes worthless for its original purpose and the tribe moves on to another word (to know the day of the year in which it is actually cool to use the word cool is to be the very definition of cool).
    I don’t want to be the King Kanute of language. If we don’t allow new coinages into the language, and fresh ways of using words which give new insights, English will lose its vigour. One of the reasons for the global ascendancy of English is its forgiving embrace and inclusion. We have begged, borrowed and stolen from everywhere, and produced a mongrel tongue which is arguably the most expressive and versatile on the planet.
    However, sometimes I do think it’s worth raising our voices in protest, especially if common usage is pushing us in a direction which robs us of the richness of the language.
    So why did I chose this example – use of literally as an intensifier – as an example of this impoverishment? Here’s my thinking:
    1. We don’t need literally as an intensifier – there are many other words we could use to add emphasis to a statement (whether we should or not is another question). Really, very, extremely are all good substitutes. Expletives are commonly used for this purpose in speech, but we can’t get away with using them in the media, which is, I suspect, where the more acceptable literally came in useful.
    2. Currently literally (sometimes) literally means literally, and at others does not literally mean literally. It’s true that we don’t often confuse the two usages if we use our common sense. However, in most of the cases I can think of, when a new meaning is proposed and adopted by common usage, and the new meaning is at odds with the old (such as unspeakable) one of the meanings dies. Usually the newer coinage kills off the older.
    3. This normally doesn’t matter. The word in question is often obscure or rarely used (when was the last time you said unspeakable?). This is not the case with literal, and literally. We often reach for them, because:
    4. We need literally. While it is true that there are adequate synonyms for the word, none of them exactly expresses, with the same precision, what we mean when we use the words literal, and literally. If we throw it away we are left with much weaker alternatives. That is, we are impoverishing, not enriching the language.
    5. Since enriching the language is the whole point of its evolution, I think evolutionary steps which do the opposite of that should be resisted (even if it is a bootless exercise).

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