Monday, March 11, 2013

Preamble for a Literal Mental Breakdown.

When I came across the recent Buzzfeed article, "The Wrong Definition of 'Literally' is Literally Going Into the Dictionary," my head literally exploded.

Or, well, it didn't. & the way that you know it didn't is that I'm typing this to you now, as opposed being gurneyed out of the library in a body bag (or riding my fire-breathing stallion through Sleepy Hollow).

Of course, the popular misuse of this particular adverb is not news—not by a long shot. In fact, it's been prominently lampooned in recent years on How I Met Your Mother& especially on Parks & Recreation, as the favorite intensifier of Rob Lowe's overexcitable Chris Traeger, for whom everything is "literally the [insert superlative here]."

Ultimately, I consider David Cross's 2002 routine the definitive rant on the subject: because when you misuse the word literally, you are using it in the exact opposite way that it was intended.

As a total word nerd & sometimes grammar snoot, the mistake bothers me, sure—but more often than not, I'm willing to let it slide. I understand that, in most cases, people are making a joke or an otherwise tongue-in-cheek statement—that they know they didn't literally die or piss themselves or stab their uncle in the face with a rake, but for whatever reason, that qualifier just feels right stuck into their phrasing.

What does bother me, though, to no end, is this:

(via Buzzfeed)

I'm sorry, but how does it make even the remotest bit of sense that "used to acknowledge that something that is not literally true" would be printed as an official functioning definition for the word "literally." It's as if we decided that the new definition for the word "quickly" were "1. done with speed; 2. used to acknowledge something that was not done with speed, but, like, if you're being sarcastic about it or something."

I mean, sure, people are technically, linguistically capable of using "literally" in this context, & yes, they do so frequently. But that doesn't change the fact that, in that usage, they're either joking or they're wrong—& to canonize & codify that wrongness is at least stupid, if not actually problematic.

Because the point of having the word "literally" in the first place is to designate things that are, y'know, literal—specifically, as opposed to things that are not. In fact, as someone prone to both sarcasm & over-exaggeration, I appreciate the steadfastness of its definition: that way, its use is deliberate & its intentional misuse thus even stronger. The murkiness of having it both ways does nothing but strip the word of any & all legitimate signification—to the point 
where we'll all have to pepper our speech with the qualifier "& I'm using the word 'literally' here in its correct & literal sense"—which is clunky & pointless & frustrating on several levels. Because, for example, what makes Chris's character so endearingly exuberant is that he means what he says, literally, every time.

In short: catering to a mass misuse is as ridiculous as it is detrimental, to the word itself & words themselves.

In shorter: everything about this phenomenon is the fucking worst. Literally.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Yes, this song is 43 seconds long, & yes, it's all the more fantastic for it. I've always been an advocate of songs being no longer than absolutely necessary—"Welcome to the Working Week" always one of my favorite Elvis Costello tunes—but honestly, Molina's 12-track, just-over-12-minute Dissed and Dismissed makes the Ramones look like an overindulgent jam band. The friend who recommended the album to me described it as "Rivers Cuomo stripped of all the fat," & I couldn't agree more—the perfect soundtrack for adolescent attention deficits & directionless head-bopping, shuffle-y & shoe-gaze-y & surging with power chords. (Also, note the 25 second track, "Sick Ass Riff," that is—wait for it—literally a single sick ass riff.)


  1. Buzzfeed isn't a very reputable lexicographical site. The use of "literally" as an intensifier of metaphoric phrases (i.e., to mean "figuratively") is not newly going into the dictionary. It's always been there! It was in the OED since that dictionary was first published and in every reputable modern dictionary since. Lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower traces the metaphorical use of "literally" to the late 18th century. Mark Twain, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau are among the writers who have used "literally" to modify in a sense that is not literal at all. What is new is the attention that the "nonliteral" sense of "literally" is receiving. With the exception of some lonely wilderness-criers in the early 20th century, the outrage is an entirely 21st-century phenomenon. How weird is that?

    1. Pretty weird indeed! Thanks for pointing this out—the more you know, & on & on. Still, I would contend that, regardless of how long it's been there, having a word defined as both one thing & its opposite is just plain counterintuitive. I'm not saying that people can't use literally in a figurative sense—that I'm out to persecute Twain or Joyce or Austen—just that we pick a side when it comes to its official OED entry.

      I wonder, though, why it is that the 21st century in particular is the age of the literal literalists...? A topic for greater minds than mine, surely.