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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

I don’t pay attention to anything that anyone says, ever.

This is a personal problem, and it has had a measurable negative impact on my life.

Don’t get me wrong.  I hear what people say, I listen to what people say, but I’m not paying attention. Instead, what I’m predisposed to doing is breaking down each word and sentence I hear, excitedly searching for a place where I can drop a salty pun (likely), or an uncomfortably bad joke (even more likely).

Besides the very clear social downsides of not giving proper attention to what my friends, colleagues, or family members are saying, the main drawback of hearing-but-not-really is that I am cursed to live in a world where I am accidentally analyzing the words people choose to use.

And ultimately, this leads to times when, as a matter of personal ethics, I cry myself to sleep.

Everyone, please take your seats for today’s lesson.

“Literally” has an actual meaning. “Literally” has a hyper-specific purpose, not to be changed.  It is a rock.  “Literally” literally means “actually.”

Sorry for shouting, but it is important that you write all of that down.

So please, don’t tell me that you “literally just crapped your pants” unless you’ve actually done the most humiliating and hilarious thing in your entire adult life.

And no, you didn’t “literally die” when you saw your ex-girlfriend in the potato chip aisle at the grocery store. You were very surprised.  You were not rushed to the hospital before being declared deceased and subsequently buried in the ground while your heirs deal with your life insurance company and logistics of planning a emotionally crippling funeral.

No.

What happened was your heart sped up slightly as you reached for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

I’m pretty sure you can spot the difference.

And last week when you were sick, your head didn’t “literally swell up to the size of a hot air balloon.” You would die if that happened. Your head would explode and you would die from lack of having a head. It would be disgusting and in the newspaper and would baffle doctors and scientists for generations.  You would literally die.

The problem I have with the bastardization of this particular word isn’t just that it’s blatantly misused. I ain’t no English major, and I certainly haven’t ever been confused for Strunk and/or White.

My problem is that “literally” is being misused in a way that suggests that it means THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF WHAT IT ACTUALLY (LITERALLY!) MEANS.

What you mean to say is “figuratively.”

Your story doesn’t get better when you say “literally.”

It becomes at best, false, and at worst, profoundly confusing.

“I’m really sorry about your pants.”

I also want to point out that this is not a case of cool kids and trend-setters brute-forcing a change to our vocabulary. When thinking about the literally/figuratively contradiction, my first instinct was to consider the fact that “hot” and “cool” mean the same thing in certain contexts, so why can’t “literally” and “figuratively”?  (e.g., “That movie was hot!”/”That movie was cool!”)

But the answer to this question is simple: intent of the speaker.

You can literally eat this house.

When a well-meaning person casually explains that they “could literally eat a house,” they are making a mistake. (EXCEPTION: the house is small and made of gingerbread.) They’ve messed up. They are trying to convey an idea to you via metaphor, and their brain in good faith selects the wrong word (“literally”) which causes the speaker to metaphorically barf out a grammatically irresponsible sentence.  They try to use to the correct word and they fail.

This is not an example of our language evolving through social interaction; it is an outright linguistic failure.

The only difference between wrongly blurting “literally” in a sentence and confusing the distinction between “I love you” and “I loathe you” is that only one of these mistakes is overlooked by polite society.  Can you imagine if people would say “loathe” in a sentence where they actually wanted to say “love” and everyone just agreeing to ignore this grammatical catastrophe (grammastrophe?) if it’s obvious what the speaker means in context?

No, you cannot imagine.

You cannot imagine because living in that world would be crazy.

Upon researching this quandary further, I was distressed to learn that the 2006 version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary explains that,

“since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning…The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs.”

A few points on the above quotation:

First, I recognize that dictionaries are in the business of documenting usage, not dictating use.

Second, however, I fail to understand why misuse, “probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentence.” I think it does. Especially when there is a word which has the exact meaning that the writer intends. It cheapens the sentence, and cheapens the word.

Class dismissed.

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