John-Michael Gariepy

I Literally Don’t Know What ‘Literally’ Means Anymore…

A friend of mine, and occasional voice on the Myriad Games Podcast, David Welsh, had something to say about the state of American Football a couple weeks ago:

In a previous post… I stated that GB did not deserve to win that game.
But, and I mean this literally, Seattle DID NOT deserve to win that game.

What Dave is talking about is the union struggles with Pro Referees, and the ineptitude of scab refs, leading to what some have said is ‘the worst call in NFL History‘.  (It’s old news now, I know.  The NFL settled.  It may have had a lot to do with this play).

I couldn’t help but focus on the word ‘literally’.  Dave’s got it right:  Green Bay left themselves open to have the game stolen from them.  They didn’t deserve to win the game, but, technically, they should have won that game because they intercepted the ball, and the last play was not a clean touchdown.  I, however, having no clue what happened, decided to look up the word ‘literally’ in a dictionary, as opposed to, I don’t know, do a Google search for the game.  So instead of discussing the rules of the football, instead we’re going to talk about a word in the dictionary.  Excitement abounds.  Merriam-Webster.com tells us:

1: in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>

Ug.  I’m not fond of the word ‘Actually’ either.  Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Many words can be used both literally and figuratively.

The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.

All right!  I’m on track.  Literally means ‘the thing exactly’ or ‘joking aside’ or maybe ‘shit just got real’.  It’s the opposite of figuratively.  Excellent.  So when someone says “I literally ate like a pig”, they either mean they got down on their hands and knees and shoved their face in a trough, or they’re using the… hold it… what is this second definition doing here?

2: in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

Wait.  What?  Maybe some examples will help clear things up?

Even Muff did not miss our periods of companionship, because about that time she grew up and started having literally millions of kittens. —Jean Stafford, Bad Characters, 1954

… yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit. —William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch, 30 Oct. 1847

That’s the opposite.  Those two definitions are exact opposites of each other.  It’s like looking up the definition for ‘Morgan Freeman’ and finding out that definition number two is “Nicolas Cage”.

Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance. – Morgan Freeman

But hold it.  There’s a note titled “Usage Discussion of Literally”.  Something weird is going on when a dictionary pulls you aside and says “Hey, Mac, you got a second?  We need to talk…”

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

This, of course, leads to the question of “Who decides if a word is a word, and who decides whether a word is used incorrectly”.  It’s natural to want to give that power to the dictionary, but a dictionary is only a directory which exists to tell living speakers how our language is most often used.  If people insist on making ‘ringtone’ one word, or adopt the Japanese word ‘manga’, or create a new word with ‘unibrow’, then a good dictionary will respect common usage and add these words.  Otherwise, a man with a gigantic unibrow may never know why people make fun of him.

Sometimes, however, words go rogue.  ‘Enormity‘ becomes ‘Enormous’.  ‘Disinterested‘ becomes ‘Uninterested’.  ‘Irony’ becomes ‘Whatever I damn well feel like calling Ironic’.  The dictionary will continue to change with the people who speak its language.  As a speaker and a writer, you have options.  You have the option to be stoic about the change of use, and attempt to write well in hopes that the word will someday return to its correct usage.  You also have the option of embracing the change in our language, and celebrate the word’s new usage with intelligence and wit.

You have a third option as well.  You can consider The Dictionary as a holy text and use it to strike down evil non-believers when The Dictionary doesn’t agree with them.  That third option requires self-righteousness, and often comes with the option to ignore the dictionary when you don’t agree with it, because language is mysterious, and some editors are pansies.

That’s in bad taste.  Getting mad at people for using a word for ironic emphasis, a word that has been linked to that usage for hundreds of years, is off-putting.  No, Muff did not literally have millions of kittens.  It’s a figure of speech.  The point of adding the word ‘literally’ there is to make you imagine what that would be like.  Maybe that works for some people.  Personally, I prefer to get rid of adverbs when they don’t add complexity to the sentence, or when a more awesome action verb could be used.  Using ‘literally’ this way is sloppy, but I’m not going to grab a pitchfork and persecute people who have a different sense of verbal style than I do.  Even if it popped up in literally every sentence you say, then I won’t fault you for misuse of the word.  I’d fault you for needless redundancy, and having a little mind.  Or maybe taking things too literally.

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2 thoughts on “I Literally Don’t Know What ‘Literally’ Means Anymore…

  1. I think my best interpretation of the modern use of literally is “I’m not exaggerating, I really mean it”. Of course, people often still misuse it, but I think that is roughly what people are trying to convey (and I think I understand it even if I don’t like it).

  2. For me, I think the biggest annoyance is when someone uses ‘literally’ to describe something that can not be taken actually or virtually. They failed at both definitions of the word. An example? “I literally should have seen the car behind me.” ‘Literally’ seems to be in an annoying quantum state here, supported by the fact that it’s simultaneously supporting and not supporting the action.

    Really, though, I’m not mad at the use of literally in this statement as much as I am annoyed at the abusive of the passive voice. The word literally is doing it’s job right… leading to a sentence that’s emphasized as important, while simultaneously withholding an opinion on the subject, since the speaker doesn’t want to appear egotistical.

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