Lamentable Languagisms: Literally

There’s a few words that get terrible treatment from modern English speakers. Their meanings are mangled, their usages are damaged. One particularly annoying example is the word “literally.” Here’s what “literally” means. It means that a word or phrase is describing reality as it actually is, without any figures of speech such as a metaphor or simile. It’s usually linked to a phrase that would often be used figuratively, but in this particularly circumstance isn’t. For example, if you say “Bill was literary scared to death,” it means Bill was so frightened he actually died of a heart attack. If you say “I’m literally jumping for joy,” it means you’re so happy that you are actually jumping up and down right now.

That is what “literally” means, but it often isn’t how “literally” is used. People like to use it to mean “very” or “really.” As in, “I have literally a mountain of work today.” They don’t mean they’re actually staring at a mountain formed of their work, they mean they have a lot of work to do. They say “I’m literally starving,” and they mean they’re really, really hungry, not that they’re actually dying from lack of food.

This is really annoying because it ruins “literally” as a word. It makes it mean absolutely nothing. After all, “a mountain of work” already means a lot of work. Adding “literally” doesn’t give any extra information unless there’s an actual mountain of paper for you to climb. And then it destroys the opportunity to use it when you mean “no, no, though this is usually figurative, right now it’s actually happening. I am actually hopping mad. I’m such a – figurative – ball of rage that I’m literally jumping up and down. It provides clarity, and isn’t that the main purpose of language? To provide clarity through communication?

So if you’re talking to someone who uses “literally” when they mean “figuratively,” slap them in the face. Not hard. Just enough to get their attention. It’s for their own good and for the good of the language.

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