Wordy Wisdom: I Literally Died!

Congratulations to all of you!  If you are reading this, it means you survived not only the Ides of March, but the Day of the Leprechaun.  That is no small feat.

Our exploration of wordiness continues.  This week, we are going to focus on a wordy sin that is not mine, but is one that I notice in others.  I notice it constantly and I judge.  So, here it is:

I literally hate the word “literally.”

First of all, let’s ponder the above sentence.  If I hate the word, what is the point of emphasizing that my hatred is literal?  What other kind of hatred is there?  Let’s also note that “literally” is an adverb, and as we all know, adverbs are not to be trusted unless they prove themselves useful.

I will give you a hint about this one: Literally is almost never useful.

WhenLiterallyReallyMeansLITERALLY-73138We should first talk about what “literally” means, because that seems to be an issue.  When we define something as being said or done “literally”, we are telling our readers or listeners that something is real, actual, or true.  If something is literal, it is not figurative or imagined.

The word “literally” is meant to be used as an understood contrast.  We are making a distinction so that the reader/listener knows that something we might normally think is not real, is in this case real.  This meaning has been lost, sadly, in favor of another.  Instead of meaning that something is actual as opposed to figurative, “literally” now means “oh my gosh, like, seriously!”  And it literally makes me want to scream (but I restrain myself).

For example:

  • “You have to watch this video I saw on YouTube!  I literally died!”
  • “I literally want to kill people who can’t park.  It’s so annoying!”
  • “I was literally lost for an hour before I found my classroom!”

Our first sentence is something one of my students said to me a few weeks ago.  I’m not sure whether I was more concerned that a dead student was sitting in my classroom or that she was callously suggesting that I watch the same video which had done her in.  Ironically, what she means by “literally” here is “figuratively.”  So, it seems that “literally” now means the opposite of “literally.”

In our second statement, we have a psychopath who has violent tendencies toward untalented drivers.  Most of us have probably experienced some degree of road rage, but we can only hope that our desire to kill is not literal.  Or, if it is, that we are not given the chance to carry it out.  The number of people who have the literal urge to kill worries me.

Our final sentence is a profound example of worthless wordiness because the word “literal” means nothing at all.  If our speaker was indeed lost for an hour, then the word need not be there at all.  If the person was not lost for an hour, then s/he is a liar and the word serves no purpose except to mislead the listener.  There is no point whatsoever to using the word in this sentence.

For some reason, “literally” has become a means of expressing the serious or extreme or dramatic nature of something.  We feel the need to add weight to our statements; thus, it happened literally.  The word has become a way of adding emphasis rather than adding meaning, but it is becoming so overused and so misused, that it adds neither.

This literally makes me want to cry.

Actually, I don’t want to cry.  I’m too annoyed.

How should literally be used, then, you ask?  When would it be appropriate?  One use for this word is when something that is normally figurative or hypothetical is actually happening or being discussed.

For example:

  • “The first pancake I flipped when I tried to make breakfast for the campers literally flew out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
  • “That’s not my cup of tea.” “Oh, you don’t like Earl Grey?” “No, that’s literally not my cup of tea.  Who stole my tea?”
  • “That kid is literally between a rock and a hard place, isn’t he?” “Should we help him get out?” “Nah, he’ll be fine.”

All of these statements are based on phrases that we know quite well, but in these cases, they are actually happening in one way or another.  The figurative has become literal.  As a result, the use of “literally” allows the audience to appreciate the irony and to recognize the figurative versus the literal.

I will climb off my soapbox about this particular issue, now (not literally – I’m sitting down).  Hopefully, you have learned something.  If I have instilled even a little paranoia these last few weeks about adverbs, I will feel good about myself.  And now you understand the perils of the literal versus the figurative.

Let’s choose our words wisely and use them well.

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on March 19, 2014, in Cliches, Editing, Humor, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Revision, Style and Structure, Words, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I learned the lesson about “literally” versus “figuratively” from Frasier season one episode five:

    DOUG: [v.o:] It’s about my mother. She’s getting on now and she doesn’t have much of a life. She doesn’t want to do anything or go anywhere and she literally hangs around the house all day. It’s very frustrating —
    FRASIER: I’m sorry Doug, can we just go back a second? You said your mother literally hangs around the house. Well, I suppose it’s a pet peeve of mine, but what you mean is that she figuratively hangs around the house; to literally hang around the house she’d have to be a bat or spider monkey.

    • These sorts of uses of “literally” are my favorite because the unintentional imagery is so distractingly funny. I think people sometimes wonder why I start grinning weirdly after they say something like that…

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