Frequently misused words: literally

 

literally: in a literal sense or manner; actually
—Merriam-Webster

Etymology
Literally comes from the word literal. People began using it in the 1530s to mean in a literal sense.[i]

Usage controversy
What is happening to literally is a lot like what is happening to unique, which we learned in the last post. People are using unique in its true meaning, of being the only of its kind, but they are also using it to mean unusual. People are watering down the word’s meaning (through semantic bleaching) to make it mean something different.

With literally, people are changing the meaning from in a literal sense to figuratively.

Take a look at these examples:

That joke was so funny that I literally peed my pants!

I was so mad at my boss that I literally jumped out of the window!

Now, if the person actually (or rather, literally) peed his pants, it is doubtful that he would want to share that story. (But I sure wouldn’t mind hearing that joke.) Likewise, if the person in the second example literally jumped out of the window, unless it was on the first floor, he probably wouldn’t still be alive to tell his story.

What the people in these examples really mean is that they figuratively peed their pants and that they figuratively jumped out of the window.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that literally began being “erroneously used in reference to metaphors, hyperbole, etc., even by writers like Dryden and Pope, to indicate ‘what follows must be taken in the strongest admissible sense’ (1680s), which is opposite to the word’s real meaning.”[ii]

If literally has been used to mean figuratively since the 1680s, is there any way it can restore its original meaning? Perhaps the better question is, should we, as writers and speakers, just say “whatevs” and use literally in any context we please?

Where Grammar Party stands
My answer is: Stop it. Stop it, people! Literally stop using literally unless you are talking about something that has literally happened.

If you want to express how a joke you heard was so hilarious that it could theoretically induce unintentional peeing of pants, say something like, “Man, that joke was so funny that I nearly peed my pants.” Or if you want to explain just how upset your boss made you, say, “Man, my boss made me so mad that I almost jumped out of the window.” Unless you literally did something, and it happened in real life, don’t use literally.

In short, where Grammar Party stands on this issue of utmost importance is: Don’t use literally to mean figuratively. Use literally to mean literally.

Word Usage Week
It’s Word Usage Week at Grammar Party. Check back tomorrow for more vocabulary goodness and word nerd controversy.

Here is some literally extra fun
The Oatmeal has a literally hilarious comic that I think lovers of literally will enjoy. Find it on The Oatmeal’s website here.

[i] Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=literally

11 thoughts on “Frequently misused words: literally

  1. I’m with you, and I’ll literally repeat what you said: “Don’t use literally to mean figuratively. Use literally to mean literally.”

    I remember that about 15 years ago a coworker of mine claimed that one of the definitions of literally that he’d seen in a certain dictionary (I don’t recall which dictionary) was ‘not literally.’

  2. Well, language changes, and this is definitely a case of that. This usage of “literally” is very common among teens (which I am and I use it!) so this is a colloquial usage. We also say things like “Someone can edit THEIR paper” when there is no plural subject. It’s just a thing we say nowadays. Like I said, language changes, and nothing is wrong with this. It LITERALLY bugs me when people complain about it. English speakers understand what another speaker is trying to say when they use “literally” to mean “figuratively”, so I don’t see why people should complain about it.

    • I’m sick and tired of people relying upon the whole “Language changes. Deal with it!” excuse to defend the figurative use of the word “literally” about as much as I am people citing the likes of famous authors like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and H.P. Lovecraft for their own use of “literally” in a figurative sense. Not only is daily discourse NOT equivalent to the utilization of the creative license that novelists and other fiction writers employ (and often exploit) for the sake of narrative illustration, but just because words change over time doesn’t mean that they do so for the right reasons. For one thing, the use of “literally” to describe something that figuratively happened is completely contradictory to what the term is supposed to mean and thus depletes both the term itself and whatever figure of speech or figurative action it’s supposed to enhance with of their respective meanings. It likewise makes the whole of what the person is trying to say come off as simply and needlessly melodramatic as hyperbole tends to be much of the time. Worse yet, the use of “literally” to either describe figurative happenings or intensify the nature of what one’s talking about (the latter of which, BTW, is unnecessary, seeing as the literal nature of what one’s discussing should already be apparent without the adverb present) has become so prevalent in media, pop culture included, that it has become annoying for those of us who don’t use it as such. Maybe YOU can get through an entire sixteen- to seventeen-minute-long video describing the faults of Suicide Squad where the use blurts out “literally” up to EIGHT TIMES during the video’s course (thus saying it at a rate of once every two minutes), but I sure can’t. The word just sticks out like a sore thumb. At least “like,” “so,” “you know,” and other such vocalized pauses are each one or two syllables long and can easily be disregarded, no matter how irritating they themselves might be. At four syllables, however (three, if you’re considering its British pronunciation), “literally” is almost impossible to not notice to the point where it’s more often than not THE word that listeners recognize the most out of everything the speaker has just said.

      Then there’s the notion of people who use the word “literally” in such a fashion so often to the point of exclusivity, not bothering to learn or use other adverbs that would work just as well—if not, in fact, BETTER—in its place. This only makes such usage of the word not only pretentious and shallow, but also ignorant and lazy on account of such people failing to realize that “literally” isn’t as multi-purpose a term as they think it is.

      Finally, even if the masses generally accept today’s common applications of “literally” as a synonym for “figuratively” and as an intensifier, the fact remains that such uses are INFORMAL at best, which means a) good luck trying to use this at your job or any other formal setting without being regarded as unfit for your position on account of your alleged poor grasp of standard English and b) the more you employ the word as such openly, the more you risk suffering grammar buffs worldwide lecturing you on how to use words correctly. After all, just as it IS incorrect to say “their” when referring to one person’s paper (as you yourself have noted), so is it wrong, too, to say “literally” when you mean “figuratively” or when trying to illustrate the gravity of something. You want “grammar Nazis” to get off your back about misusing certain words and phrases? Simple: Learn how to use them correctly in the first place and continue doing so. Quit whining about them complaining about “literally” and its modern misuse unless you’re CLEARLY trying to stir the pot and start a feud with complete strangers over something that you evidently think is petty in the grand scheme of things. The way you acted right here has only made you a target for less-forgiving individuals to accuse you of self-entitlement simply because you’re defending a way of speaking that you yourself have openly admitted to practicing in the real world, which I’m surprised hasn’t happened within the five years since you’ve posted what you have. As far as I’m concerned, those of us who all communicate via the same language all must obey its rules, no matter how confusing they might be, and if we can’t do that, then demanding preferential treatment for our shortcomings simply isn’t the way to go.

      Personally, I hope grammarians across the globe continue protesting this annoying fad of misusing “literally” because the way I see it, that’s just what this whole mess is: a cheap, idiotic fad that’s reduced a once-meaningful word to mindless filler by people who should know better that that should have gone away by now but hasn’t, no thanks to such people’s stubbornness and refusal to preserve something as powerful and meaningful as the spoken and/or written word. Call me a fanatic if you must, but that’s how I feel, and I’m, standing by what I say here.

    • So let me get this straight, Jacob: Instead of making an effort to a) improve your own communication skills, b) educate yourself about the true purpose of a simple yet once-meaningful word, and c) rise above the ever-growing glut of ignorant, language-abusing, culture-killing media zombies, you’re going to come on here to the Internet and stamp your feet over and shout back at a bunch of concerned grammarians who are growing evermore sick and tired of such an incessant, lazy, negligent, and purely senseless habit that has yet to go away, no thanks to the self-entitled stubbornness of the people who’ve been perpetuating said habit for YEARS—if not, in fact, DECADES—at this point? Well, too bad! Congratulations for proving to the world that millennials aren’t the ONLY ones to blame for this whole “literally” craze, nor is their generation the only one burdened with having its fair share of petty, dim-witted, narcissistic brats among them and perhaps even then some.

      The fact of the matter is that both the figurative and the superfluous use of “literally” are both completely unnecessary and have done nothing but trivialize the word to the point of making it the most superficial term to date since Valleyspeak turned “like” into a senseless discourse marker back in the 1970s. I just hope the rest of your generation wakes up and puts an end to this cheap, outdated, pseudointellectual trend before the word “literally” completely loses its initial definition because the baby boomers, Generation X, and the millennials have all certainly failed to do exactly that and otherwise help to preserve whatever dignity and relevance the English language has left. Yes, using “their” when talking about one person’s possession is wrong, but believe it or not, so is saying “literally” when either a) talking about something that happened FIGURATIVELY or b) using to emphasize the importance of something that really doesn’t need any extra emphasis.

      Grow up, then, Jacob, and start being a bigger person than what you’ve mode yourself out to be here. America is already flooded with ignorance as matters stand, and it’s long been time to start draining the cerebral diarrhea within which we’ve all been swimming in before we start officially drowning within it.

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