Like, Literally Literally

About a month ago, XKCD posted this comic:

But then the Ghost of Subjunctive Past showed up and told me to stay strong on "if it were."

And I laughed! And I totally agreed! …Sort of.

So here’s the thing. The figurative use of literally—when people use it as an intensifier but don’t mean that something happened exactly as they’re describing it—does not make one whit of real difference to the world, just as this comic points out. No one is ever going to think you mean it literally when you say, for example, “he literally blew his top.” There aren’t that many situations where whatever you’re saying could be meant figuratively or literally and lead to confusion. And even when it does happen, well, so what? It happens with a million other English words that have more than one meaning. We’ve all survived this long with a couple dozen meanings for set, so we’ll soldier on even if there’s one more meaning for literally.

My girlfriend takes two-hour showers. Literally, two hours.But at the same time, I think it’s useful to reserve literally for when you mean something is 100% actually true. It might not be necessary, but it’s useful. Earlier this week I ran into this real-life use at right, in a front-page tease for Slate’s Dear Prudence column. If you read the column, the letter writer says, “Once or twice a week [my girlfriend will] retreat to the bathroom and take a ‘shower’ for an hour or two. Like literally 120 minutes.”

Cases like this are when you start to wish that the older meaning of literally had not been muddled by the newer usage. The thing being describe is extreme enough that it could be mild hyperbole, or it could be totally real (if wacky). In this case, it’s totally real, which both the letter writer and whoever wrote the tease signified to the reader by not just adding literally, but also by repeating or restating the information in question. If it weren’t acceptable to use literally as an intensifier, they could each simply add literally to the sentence and you’d know exactly what they meant without their restating it.

This repeating method certainly works, the same way saying, “No, she like-likes him!” works—it’s clear, but clunky. But then again, this isn’t exactly a huge burden to impose on the language. So while I’d prefer to restrict literally to non-figurative uses, I am most definitely never going to correct anyone in conversation or even causal writing. Because seriously, that is duuuuuuuuumb.

But there’s a difference between me and the guy who writes XKCD. When the people who write the rulebooks are trying to determine whether this usage has become acceptable in all registers of writing, they certainly consider things like webcomics and self-published work, but they put a lot of weight on edited writing, and I’m an editor. So if I decide to let that go in articles I edit, I’m hastening the arrival of that day in the third panel—that’s exactly the same except maybe people say literally slightly more often.

OK, big whoop, I admit it. One more useful distinction lost, but no real harm done. I guess I’m just kind of hoping it’s fad, and if I refuse to accept it long enough it’ll go away. But it’s already in Webster’s, so I think I’m only fooling myself.

Well, I’ll be clinging to a single-definition literally in print for a bit longer, but that doesn’t mean you should go around correcting your friends in the meantime. They’ll think you’re the biggest jerk in the world. Literally.


7 comments on “Like, Literally Literally

  1. One distinction is that when people use “literally” to mean “figuratively,” they’re changing the meaning to its exact opposite (whereas the many meanings for “set” are all over the place). Other so-called Janus words are “cleave” and “sanction.”

    • That’s a good thought, but I don’t think people are using it to mean “figuratively,” no matter what that second XKCD implies. They’re just… not using it to mean “literally.” It’s an intensifier like “seriously” or “totally,” but “He’s seriously hammered” doesn’t invite you to picture someone hitting him with hammers the way “He’s literally hammered” does. The speaker is nominally saying that this hyperbole is not a hyperbole, but of course what they mean is that this hyperbole is more hyperbolic than usual. They’re using “literally” in a figurative fashion, but they don’t actually mean “figuratively” when they say it.

      In fact, saying “figuratively” would have the opposite effect, pointing out that what follows is merely exaggeration or idiom, and thus downplaying its intensity. Which is one more good reason not to tell your friends to say “figuratively” when they say “literally” figuratively.

  2. I have bad news: literal literally is already figurative. It originally meant “of or relating to letters”. Then it came to refer to reading texts according to their plain or usual meaning, without any symbolism or metaphor read into them. Then it came to mean something real rather than something metaphorical, but this meaning uses the notion of letters as a metaphor for what’s real. In a way, it’s no surprise that the word has continued to develop more metaphorical or figurative meanings.

    • Oh, I took Latin all through high school, so I’m well aware of the history of “literally.” You’ll notice I was careful to refer to the word’s “older” meaning, not its original one. ;) Since I’m not trying to sell anyone on the idea that there’s only One True Meaning of “literally” or any other word, I think the history is neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.

      But if any other readers find this kind of thing fascinating (I know I do), I highly recommend http://www.etymonline.com.

  3. Oh, I agree that it’s not really relevant to your point, and my comment wasn’t necessarily directed at you anyway. I just think it’s interesting to see the historical development, but that’s part of why I went back for a graduate degree in linguistics. But obviously the original or historical meaning is not necessarily the correct meaning today.

  4. Nice post. I’m with you that the language is losing something buy allowing “literally” to be used as an intensifer. I’m also aware that I have no problem with phrases like “he’s really hammered”, or “he’s truly hammered”, and nor, I’m pretty sure, do most people. Yet “really” and “truly” are – like “literally” – technically absolutes, used in this context as intensifiers.

    English speakers use absolutes as intensifiers frequently – so much so, that it goes more or less unnoticed. The one exception that seems to get people riled is “literally”. But why should it be a special case? Not on the basis of logic or consistency. That leaves the “last bastion” argument, which I think is what you’re appealing to. It’s useful to have at least one word that literally means “literally”. I’ll certainly keep standing for it in my own writing and editing, but I’m not going to to go to war with people who feel differently.

  5. Excuse typo in above post. I meant “by”, not “buy”. Yikes!

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