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.