Not Literally

*gets on soapbox*

It’s no surprise that people are misusing “literally” a lot, and it seems to be getting worse.

At first, I mostly heard it used for the opposite of its true meaning – that is, people used it to mean “figuratively.” Something like, “He jumped out of the closet and literally gave me a heart attack.”

More recently, I also hear it used in a way that’s simply indifferent to its original meaning, in situations where literal vs. figurative use is not an issue. Sentences like, “I literally think it’s an amazing movie.”

In both cases, “literally” has lost its specific meaning and become merely an intensifier, similar to “really,” “honestly,” or (in the colloquial sense) “seriously.”

I think this is unfortunate, and not just because it drives me crazy.

Language nerds (who, me?) are always complaining that people write or speak “wrong.” Sins include using “who” instead of “whom,” “alumni” instead of “alumnus,” “lay” instead of “lie,” and on and on. In many cases, though, the rule is arbitrary – enforced only for consistency or for the sake of sounding smart. (Consistency does matter, but it’s generally not vital.) And in some cases – like “who” vs. “whom” – the rule is worse than useless, and its erosion is something worth cheering. Language changes, conventions evolve, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But “literally” is different.

For one thing, it creates real ambiguity. Sure, if you say “She literally bit my head off,” I can be pretty sure what you mean. But if you say “He’s literally good enough for the Olympics,” do you mean he’s in fact a world-class athlete, or just that he’s really good? If you say, “She’s literally a witch,” do you mean she’s a horrible person, or do you actually believe in witchcraft? I either let it go, rendering your sentence useless, or I’m forced to ask a follow-up question, which is annoying and maybe embarrassing.

Worse, though, misuse of “literally” destroys a unique and practical word. There are lots of intensifiers already, with new ones added all the time. But there’s only one “literally,” only one simple, elegant way to distinguish metaphor from straightforward language.

And if you mangle it…you’re killin’ me, Smalls. (Figuratively.)

*gets off soapbox*


3 responses to “Not Literally

  1. I literally could care less. I can’t even. I am figuratively poking the bear.

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