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Friday, November 25, 2005

Re: Literally Everywhere

Posted by on November 25 at 14:45 PM

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this Slate article, written by an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary who defends, in a way, the misuse of the term “literally.”

It turns out there are tons of well-regarded authors who have misused “literally,” and to great effect. That should give some pause to those who would have us all literally bound to the word’s technical definition. More importantly, there are good linguistic arguments for laying off the scorn of those who from time to time use “literally” in a manner that is not precisely consistent with the word’s primary meaning. Some of those reasons in the jump….

(Once this raging debate is settled, maybe we can move on to the more important matter of s’s, a truly wretched construction if there ever was one.)

In the case of literally, the "right" meaning is said to be "exactly as described; in a literal way," because that's what the base word literal is supposed to mean. In fact, the literal meaning of literal would be something like "according to the letter," but it's almost never used this way. "He copied the manuscript literally" would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are "literally on fire," how surprised can we be?

The trouble with usage criticism of the sort leveled at literally is that it's typically uneven: Parallel uses are frequent and usually pass unnoticed. For every peruse there's a scan (see my essays on these terms here and here); for every hopefully there's a clearly; and for every literally there's a really: Or did you expect people to complain when really is used to emphasize things that are not "real"? When Meg, in Little Women, moaned that "It's been such a dismal day I'm really dying for some amusement," she wasn't the one dying.