Thursday, 8 May 2014


A repost from the BoingBoing message boards:

Now my ire is raised! Let's look at that oatmeal comic, shall we? First of all, the first line of it says that "Literally means actually or without exaggeration." So according to the link you provided, the idea of correcting someone saying they should have use "actually" instead of "literally" is requesting a synonym.

But let's get a little deeper into the obsession that people have with the word "literally." Have you every thought about words that people use to amplify meaning?

Really - Let's see... "Real" as in, actual or factual, or in the real world
Very - Look like "verily" at all to you? Root Latin word verus meaning "true"
Truly - True

That's right, in the history of the English language, words that mean "truthfully" have morphed into words we use to mean "extremely."

This is a fairly obvious transition. We commonly conflate the ideas of true and extreme because we use them in ways like "Jem is truly outrageous". Obviously "Jem is outrageous" would also convey the idea that what you are saying it true. It is almost never necessary to indicate that a fact you are conveying through speech is meant to be regarded as true. So saying that Jem is "truly" outrageous serves only to highlight that you might have been prevaricating or exaggerating otherwise, that is, when other people merely say "outrageous" they might not mean it to the same degree you do. "I really love you," instead of "I love you." "I'm really hungry" instead of "I'm hungry", "I really want to punch that guy" instead of "I want to punch that guy." Explaining that you mean what you say is the same thing exaggerating the meaning even when you don't actually mean what you say.

So it makes the leap to being a word people use to exaggerate. "I'm really starving," would be interpreted by any sensible person as an exaggeration, not an statement of literal fact about low caloric intake leading to medical complications.

But there's more. Once on word has been firmly entrenched as a way of exaggerating it loses it's punch. Everything is "really" something, really is boring, so new words take up that role. "Literally" is just the one of many. If someone says, "That was so funny I literally pissed my pants!" they were most likely employing a metaphor.

To say that they can't be employing a metaphor because their sentence contained the word "literally" is the equivalent of saying that my sentence "I had to quickly go to the store," can't be true because I said the sentence slowly. The word "quickly" is not a metaword that applies to what I am saying, it's an adverb that applies to the verb "go", and "literally" works exactly the same way.

"Literally" is not a magical word handing to us from God on High to usurp the meaning of the surrounding text. It's just a word like any other - it can be used metaphorically and it's usage can shift over time.

When someone says, "I literally pissed my pants," they are not using any words in the sentence incorrectly, it's just that what they said is not true.

Complaints about "literally" being used in correctly are pure snobbery, with a healthy dose of "the kids these days" mixed in.

(Check out that last sentence - If the snobbery is "pure" then how can it have anything else mixed in?!? If that sounds stupid and pedantic, that is exactly how stupid and pedantic complaining about "literally" is)

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