See You Next Tuesday ("Literally")

See You Next Tuesday is the Boomstick's regular column. On Tuesdays, I bring you the week's most laughable scumbags, idiots, and jerks for your reading and reviling pleasure.   If you don't get the name, visit your nearest middle school playground and ask the first kid you see.  You can read previous editions here.  

"You have to see last night's Modern Family.  It was so funny, I literally died laughing."

Literally? You literally died of laughter?  Unless this is a Monty Python sketch, I don't think you're actually dead.  And if that episode literally caused you such diaphragmatic discomfort such that you literally anticipated imminent death, why the hell would you recommend it to me, douchenozzle?


Of course, if you said this phrase to me, you probably just meant that you laughed really hard, so hard that you embraced the hyperbolic idiom, "I died laughing."  What you meant was that you figuratively died laughing, the opposite of "literally."  And this frequent mistake is why today's See You Next Tuesday is literally devoted to the word "literally."

A recent conversation about this phenomenon got me thinking: how is it that a straightforward, rather bookish term like "literally" has become so bastardized by popular usage as to mean the exact opposite of itself in common parlance?  None of us would say, "my head was actually spinning," or "I sincerely shit my pants when that happened," but we wouldn't flinch if someone claimed to have literally experienced these things.  

At first discussion, it seemed like the corruption of "literally" stemmed just from ignorance and exaggeration -- the same people who update their Facebook statuses to say, "I shouldn't of taken you for granite because now your gone and I'm board."   But then a friend looked up the word in the dictionary and, egads, my poor grammar alarm went all awry:
Et tu, Merriam-Webster?  By including this second definition in the dictionary, without flagging it as as colloquial or incorrect, the people at M-W were telling me that this subordinate definition must be more than just misuse.  So, now I had to do some real research.  Luckily for me, Slate magazine put together a great article on the subject, so I didn't have to read a real book or nothin'.

The ground was not especially sticky in Little Women when Louisa May Alcott wrote that "the land literally flowed with milk and honey," nor was Tom Sawyer turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as "literally rolling in wealth," nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that "he literally glowed," nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was "the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat." 
While Sheidlower can chart the word's frequent literary use as a magnifier through the 17th and 18th centuries, he notes that employing "literally" to exaggerate only became a faux pas in more recent times.  It wasn't until the early 20th century, nearly a hundred years after Jane Austen wrote of being"literally rocked in our bed" by a storm, that writers began condemning the word's dual use.

But it's not just the history behind the word that swayed me; Sheidlower also points out that we criticize word usage "unevenly."  Other words have dual and contradictory meanings (Sheidlower cites "cleave" and "peruse") and other words with literal roots don't always mean exactly that (where's all the outrage over "really?" You aren't really about to kill someone, are you?) to prove his point.  And I think he does it well.


So instead of chastising the careless speakers who use "literally" to mean "figuratively" in today's See You Next Tuesday, we've gone all Mr. Rogers on this grammar and actually learned something.  I guess the moral of today's See You Next Tuesday is not to take yourself too...literally?  And, of course, not to take grammatical pet peeves for granite. 
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8 comments

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Preston
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 3:45 AM delete

I am figuratively shitting my pants.

I'll leave it to you to guess my meaning.

Here's a hint: I'm literally shitting my pants.

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Matt!
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 9:33 AM delete

I've never been bothered by "literally," maybe because I've given people too much credit. It seems very clever to use the word "literally" figuratively. It's like, meta-language.

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Scott
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 9:35 AM delete

hahaha. You don't know me well enough, A, because I did "sincerely shit my pants" when that happened!

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Emily
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 11:58 AM delete

Next SYNT should be about the use of the word "douchenozzle"

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Miles Madigan
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 12:34 PM delete

I only use "literally" in that sense when the claim is absolutely impossible.

Bad style: "I literally shit my pants." Hey, it happens.

Good style: "I literally shit a double rainbow out of my pants."

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Scott
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 4:48 PM delete

The other day I used the following in an e-mail, which I love since it combines my grammar fascism with my regular fascism:
"My personal favorite [lie] is that Wall Street greed caused the mortgage crisis. I'm not saying they weren't a supporting player, but the Government literally forced them to push subprime mortgages on people who couldn't afford them (and I'm using "literally" literally, not figuratively)."

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Brad
AUTHOR
April 19, 2011 at 10:28 PM delete

You literally blew my mind with this post.

Actually, I liked Miles' distinction. For the most part, most of your examples follow the possible/impossible distinction. I do not believe land can literally flow with milk and honey. Only Scrooge McDuck can literally roll or swim in money. It is probably impossible for a person to glow, well, unless you happen to work in or around Fukushima, Japan (too soon?). I also doubt that music would have the actual force to literally knock everything else into a cocked hat...whatever the fuck that is.

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Alison
AUTHOR
April 21, 2011 at 12:01 AM delete

My friends/commenters get funnier all the time. This is great stuff guys. I'm literally shooting golden laser beams of shark teeth out of my eyes right now.

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