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.

Frequently misused words: unique

Dear chicken: You are an awesome-looking, fancy chicken, but that does not make you unique. Sorry.

unique: being the only one

Imagine this situation: A lady selling her wares on a TV shopping channel tells you that she has a deal you can’t resist. It’s for a unique, one-of-a-kind porcelain Lady Diana doll. There are only ninety left, and one of these lovely dolls could be yours for the low price of blah-dee-blah and ninety-nine cents.

Wait. Unique? How can the doll be unique if there are at least ninety of them?

In this post, we’re going to learn the history of the word unique and its appropriate usage—and also why you should probably not waste your money on TV shopping channels.

English attained unique from French, which got the word from unicus, a Latin word meaning “single, sole.”[i]

Usage controversy
Looking at the first dictionary entry for unique, noted above, we can surmise that the word only applies to people, things, and ideas that are the one and only of their kind. For instance, a unique artifact means that there is no other artifact like it. It is the only one in the world.

However, if you look farther down the page in your dictionary, you’re likely to see a different entry, much like Merriam-Webster’s third entry for unique, which merely cites it as meaning unusual. Merriam-Webster’s also has this usage note:

Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, often asserting that a thing is either unique or it is not. Objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense, an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary. Unique dates back to the 17th century but was little used until the end of the 18th when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was reacquired from French. H. J. Todd entered it as a foreign word in his edition (1818) of Johnson’s Dictionary, characterizing it as “affected and useless.” Around the middle of the 19th century it ceased to be considered foreign and came into considerable popular use. With popular use came a broadening of application beyond the original two meanings.[ii]

Where Grammar Party stands
So, does unique mean one and only, or does it just mean unusual? As a copy editor, I will always recommend that a writer use a different word when they use unique to mean merely unusual. A single, and might I add fancy, word to mean one and only is a very useful descriptor. I would even go so far as to say that English needs a word like that. And unique fills that role. When people use unique for any unusual thing, it waters down the word and takes away the uniqueness of truly unique objects (or ideas or people, in some cases).

Is it wrong to use unique willy-nilly? Like so many topics in the realm of word usage, it depends on whom you ask. If you ask Merriam Webster, and I imagine many linguists, you’d be likely to hear that since people are already using unique to mean unusual, there’s no stopping it. (This is called semantic bleaching.) So go ahead and use it as you wish. But if you were to ask me or other red ink-stained copy editors, you’d likely be asked to save unique for its original purpose, to describe something that is one of a kind.

More unique?
If you agree, as I do, to reserve unique for truly unique things, then you can’t describe something as being very unique or more unique. If something is the only one in existence, and thus unique, then there can’t be something else that is more “the only one in existence.” However, something can be somewhat unique if one aspect is one of a kind but others aren’t. Likewise, something can also be nearly unique.

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