Friday, July 25, 2008


Probably one of my worst language-related pet peeves is the misuse of the word “literally.” When people say things like “I literally exploded!” I get pretty excited waiting for the story of how they put all their atoms and molecules back together after being blown to a million bits. I suppose I am a bit sadistic. But seriously, let’s look at the definition for “literal”—1 a: according with the letter of the scriptures b: adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression : actual literal sense is impossible — B. N. Cardozo> c: free from exaggeration or embellishment literal truth> d: characterized by a concern mainly with facts literal man>

So you see, it just doesn’t make any sense to say, “I wanted to literally crack my head open like an egg.” However, it would make sense to say “I literally wanted to crack my head open like an egg.” See the difference? I really did want to – it was my actual, factual desire in that moment. I’ll tell you the story, as soon as that guy tells me how he got his molecules back in order.

Imagine my consternation then, when I read the second definition for “literally” from Merriam Webster: 2 : in effect : virtually literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins> WHAT!?! and yes, that is deserving of two exclamation points and a question mark, italics and bolding. I mean WHAT!?! why in the world should a word have two meanings that are in exact opposition to each other? It very much angers me. They say that it is used in a hyperbolic sense, but I think that people really just have no idea what it means when they say they are literally hungry enough to eat an elephant. You are not that hungry. I know that. …Literally.


Elizabeth West Bunton said...

Well, I get your point, I was equally upset to find out that "funner" was as acceptable as "more fun." But that is the beauty of the English language and perhaps the beauty of language as a whole--it adapts, whether it should or not. Tim and I get into fights all the time about something merely because he is using the "new" definition of a word and I am still going off the "real" meaning and so despite the fact that we are using the same word we have completely different meanings in our respective heads and so after hours of disagreement we finally clue in that we are just not understanding each other because the word has separate meanings for each of us and that once that is cleared up, we are actually exactly on the same page. Oh the hours I could have back if English was not quite so adaptable.

Charity said...

Yes, you are right. Language changes, and I'm usually pleased with the adaptation and change. I don't know why I hate literally so much. It's just a word. I guess I'll have to resolve to get over it.