Shut it. Literally.

Okay, here’s the thing. “Literally” doesn’t mean “really.” It’s not a word that you put in front of some other words to show that, unlike the rest of your lackluster sentence, this is the part you really totally completely, like, absolutely mean. And it doesn’t mean figuratively, or metaphorically. “Literally” means that it actually happened.

So if you tell me that you’re “literally going to hijack this meeting,” I’m liable to go all Jet Li on you. If you tell me that viewers of the latest Star Trek movie “quite literally get to pick up the very end of a new thread,” I’m going to imagine dorks in fake Spock ears crawling about the theater floor in search of a string. If you write that the Columbine murderers “literally put a scar across the American Flag,” I’m going to suggest that this is the least of their crimes. If you declare in your headline: “USA Today fights for its life, literally,” I’m going to insist that unless the newspaper’s representatives are in fact in a deathmatch, you are mistaken.

Here’s the beauty of a metaphor — it paints a word picture to take the stress off your feeble collection of adjectives. If you don’t know how to describe an enchanting girl except with the words “pretty” or “hot,” then you can say she took your breath away. We get it. You don’t have to supersize it by telling us she literally took your breath away. Though if you talk that way around me I might, in fact, quite literally, take your breath away.

Our words have entered the realm of fast food. They don’t offer much in the way of nutritional value, and so we dream up ways to enhance a flimsy burger by giving it extra-hot jalapeno cheese. We don’t just say, “I was frightened.” We say, “I was totally, like, so, so frightened.” For the love, people. Buy a freaking thesaurus. Literally.

Why the fuss? Because words, Derrida and a whole host of soul-killing word jesters aside, mean things. They are not just a bunch of grunts lying idly about for your summons, so that they can be haphazardly arranged for you to express yourself as you see fit. They are not minions in the kingdom of You. They do not mean whatever it is you want them to mean. So use them gently. Use them artfully. For God’s sake, use them properly.

Comments

  1. Mark

    Agreed. I’ve long been perplexed by the “I was all, like, whatever, and I went, uh, you know” language. I suspect, like I do with most of our present social problems, that 3 decades of declining standards in public education have left us with a generation that *literally* lacks the vocabulary and reasoning skills needed to effectively communicate. Thus, we end up with people who speak in shrugs and grunts of various tones, and who end almost every sentence with “you know?”, which they ask because they’re at least somewhat aware that their sentences fall short of the mark. Thanks to the prevailing educational orthodoxy, however, they’re aware of their feelings. Not that they could tell you that.

  2. Dana

    Thank you!!!! This is literally one of my pet peeves (which I just looked up to confirm spelling so as to avoid your wrath)!

  3. Chris H

    “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

    –CS Lewis–

  4. Travis Prinzi

    Yes! I remember some years ago watching an Olympic athlete talking about his sport. He said, “With the Olympics literally around the corner.”

    I went nuts. Really? Literally? As in, if you walk down the street and turn the corner, the Olympics will be right there?

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  6. towknee

    I’m not quite sure what your point is. You start out by saying that the word “literally” doesn’t mean really. Honestly I think that is exactly what the word means. People use hyperbole regularly (I’d hate to say “all the time” for fear that it may be taken too literally). The reason why people use the word “literally” is that they wish to have the words that they say understood in the exact sense in which they have been said. If I say a man is insane, you might be able to interpret what I have said as meaning that a man doesn’t meet my standard of being normal (i.e. he doesn’t have his own blog, he must be insane!) In order to gaurd against you interpreting my words in an exaggerated or metaphorical sense, I would add the word literally (i.e. The man was literally insane, they sent him to an institution). Another way of wording that may be, “The man was really (or actually) insane.” I do, however, feel that you may have been using the term “really” in a different sense. If you meant to use the word to mean “very” as in, “That guy is really good at painting,” I probably don’t mean it to say that he is actually good at art, I mean he is very good at painting. I think that you may be falling in to your own critical trap by not using the word “really” in its literal sense. You are using the word “really” in the exact same way that everyone else uses the word “literally.” The usage of the word “literally” is defined in a second sense by Mirriam- Webster as, “2 : in effect : virtually “will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins.” They define it the same way they define the second sense of the word “really,” as in, not in its literal sense.

  7. wife

    towknee

    a glance or two at the original Webster’s, and some in succession, will demonstrate how as a reference it changes with the culture. Therefore, you will now find definitions that reflect common cultural usage along with original definitions.

    In other words, if someone ‘hijacks’ a word and enough people use it and it becomes commonly used for a number of years, you will eventually find it’s ‘new’ usage in reference books, thus validating your own belief of what it really means.

    It doesn’t seem a wise or sustainable option for those with a limited vocabulary, for the sake of clarity in communicating outside one’s own peers or culture. After all, I don’t allow my children to continue to speak in their limited vocabulary using common words for multiple things, even though I and understand them just fine.

  8. Bob

    Oh yes. And how about the frequently used, “(he is) one of the only people…”. I thought “only” already implied uniqueness.

  9. Beth

    Thanks for a good laugh on a serious subject, Tony! At the end of the semester, I am going crazy (figuratively, I hope) at the lack of precision in all the verbiage I am forced to read. (Yes, I give the assignments, but *they* are the ones who write them so badly; if they wrote precisely and literately, I wouldn’t mind the grading nearly so much.) Just this afternoon I was discussing the difference between “lie” and “lay” with a student, and, getting rather passionate about it, remarked that while it is probably a losing battle, *someone* needs to fight for precision. Why, for example, I ask my students, as I slam a textbook on the desk to wake them up, say “I want to impact the world for Jesus”? Really? You want to hit them, strike them, for the Lord? Well, some of us need 2×4 intervention, I’m sure, but we have this perfectly accurate, time-tested word in English — “influence” — that says what you probably *literally* mean that you want to do . . .

    Oh, end of semester is a bad time to get me started on language . . . I’ll shut up now!

  10. Rob H

    Too funny… I always knew there was a reason why I repeated that word outloud when I heard it used with so much force in a series of run on sentences. I dub thee…”jackhammer on jello” speech. ~R

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