Friday, March 2, 2007

Illiterate about "literal."

What has happened to the word literal?

For one thing, it’s become very popular. While flipping channels over a ten-minute period one afternoon, I heard it at least 6 times, incorrectly, in every instance. Literally! One example:

“My brain was literally on fire.”

I get irony, really. But it seems to me that more often than not, the word literal is used by people who think it means the exact opposite.

From the web site Common Errors in English by WSU's Paul Brians: literally has been so overused as a sort of vague intensifier that it is in danger of losing its literal meaning. It should be used to distinguish between a figurative and a literal meaning of a phrase."

How did this happen, I wonder?

Something similar happened with déjà vu. It was funny when Yogi Berra used redundancy: “it was déjà vu all over again.” It caught on, but eventually most people who used that phrase had no clue of the joke - or if they did, gave no indication they were in on the irony. For years now, that phrase has irked me. It’s just not funny anymore.

So, back to literal.

“I was, like, literally heartbroken!” (The dead continue to speak!)

“My head like, literally exploded.” (And the mouth still can’t, like, shut up?)

“My skin was literally crawling.” (Where to? The flayed look is so last millennium.)

Oh, for goodness’ sake. Like and literal are not synonyms, not by a long shot! Using them together in sentences annoys me greatly! LITERALLY!!!!!! It grates on my nerves. Figuratively.

I have to wonder: is there a link between like and literal?

Given the gross overuse of like, in cases where one might have heard such as, compared to, as in, et cetera….can we detect a growing inability to use language accurately? Or perhaps, people speak with exaggeration and hyperbole as a matter of course, so much so they've found they need a way to say when they really mean something?

I still would love to know how this misuse began, so if anyone has answers, share and enlighten, please!

You know what prompted me to write this tirade?

Yesterday afternoon on the program The World,” the guest host said of the son of a late musician from Mali: “He’s literally following in his father’s footsteps.” (Read or listen to it here.) I waited to hear where exactly the son was trekking, retracing his father’s footsteps. I was disappointed. Of course, the son was following in the father’s figurative career footsteps.

And this on PUBLIC RADIO!! That, for me, was the last straw. (The last straw that literally broke the camel's back? I'm KNOW I read or heard that somewhere lately!)

Ye gods.

I really don’t know how literal came to be so abused. But apparently, I am far from alone in my irritation. After I started writing this, I Googled misuse word literal – and lo and behold, 380,000 results!

This one is fun: an “English language grammar blog tracking abuse of the word literally”: Literally, A Web Log. Some hysterical examples collected on this site, such as she literally jumped out of her skin. Worth a few good laughs!

A brief digression to the word like. I tried my best to reduce its egregious use by my children, a couple of summers ago. Each time they used the word meaninglessly, as a filler, the offending party would be fined a nickel. If I did it, the fine was a quarter. (We used the money for ice cream at the end of the summer.) The exercise didn't obliterate the word from our home, but my sons, at least, don't pepper their speech liberally with the word. With my daughter, corrections are still required on occasion.

Maybe my next goal should be to discourage the misuse of literal and literally. I want to encourage the use of the following in its place: practically, virtually, actually, really. Or use nothing at all, in sentences such as I [literally] couldn't wait for the show to start.

Rant over. I feel much better! Literally!

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