Frequently misused words: literally


literally: in a literal sense or manner; actually

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.

Yo mama’s so fat a hyperbole couldn’t even exaggerate her weight.

Lesson: Spotting hyperbole in literature, pop culture, and politics.

hyperbole: an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally, as “to wait an eternity.” –

Hyperbole is a tool used in literature and rhetoric when you want to make your point in an entertaining or more effective, and not entirely truthful, way.

For instance, if you were telling your friends about the time you almost got eaten by an alligator, you could just say, “One time I almost got eaten by an alligator, but I scared it off by punching its nose.” However, you could make the story even more enticing and memorable if you used hyperbole to exaggerate things just a touch. You could also say, “This truck-sized alligator rushed out of the swamp like an Olympic sprinter. Then it dashed at me, baring its almost metallic, sharp-as-a-rusty-can teeth. But I wasn’t scared at all. I sauntered up to that beast, and I pulled my fist back, and I bopped it on the nose, giving it one heck of a nose bleed. As I stared into the sky victoriously, it whimpered and crawled back into the swamp to go find it’s mommy.”

Which story would you rather listen to?

Hyperbole in literature
Since hyperbole has a way of making a great story greater, it is an oft-used tool in literature. A lot of your favorite stories might only be five pages long without it.

A great example of hyperbole is the description of Paul Bunyan’s winter in the story “Babe, the Blue Ox.”

“Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”

That’s a lot more interesting than just saying, “It was a cold winter.”

Humorous hyperbole
One of the most common places we encounter hyperbole is in jokes. Several types of jokes rely on hyperbole to get the laughs out. A famous example is “Yo Mama” jokes.

As in: Yo mama is so fat that her cereal bowl came with a lifeguard.

Now, we aren’t really supposed to believe that your mother’s intense hunger and ability to consume large quantities of food somehow drove her to acquire a cereal bowl so enormous it could fit (and actually was staffed by) a lifeguard. The joke is merely using hyperbole to poke fun at your mother’s (or a proverbial mother’s) waistline.

Let’s look at a couple more:

Yo mama is so ugly that her shadow ran away from her.

Yo mama is so dirty that when she tried to take a bath, the water jumped out and said “I’ll wait.”

The hyperbole in both of these jokes is easy to spot. Shadows can’t move by their own volition, and water is also unable to move on its own or to speak. So you know the jokester is exaggerating to make a humorous effect. Then you chuckle, and a good time is had by all (except, maybe, your mother).

Hyperbole in political rhetoric
However, hyperbole is more difficult to spot, and less funny, when people use it outside of jokes and literature—such as, let’s say, on the campaign trail.

For kicks, let’s take a look at some things a Congresswoman from my home state has said recently. Try to spot the hyperbole she uses.

I spotted “the Saudi Arabia of oil,” “horror picture show” “gangster government,” and “Pelosi healthcare nightmare.” Since, for instance, the American government is not literally made of guys in dark suits sending messages of newspaper-wrapped fish, it’s safe to say Michele Bachmann was using hyperbole.

Hyperbole used for fun makes life more interesting. But when we hear it from people who are supposed to tell us the straight facts, it can be confusing and dangerous. And it’s not just Michele Bachmann, of course. It’s politicians of every stripe.

Hyperbole is a useful tool, so let’s use it. Notice it when it is used effectively in your favorite books. But also be on the look out for hyperbole pop ups in not-so-appropriate arenas.