You’re Literally Up in Arms About ‘Literally’? Seriously?

"Literally" humor is common on the internet, as in this Cyanide and Happiness comic strip

“Literally” humor is common on the internet, as in this Cyanide and Happiness comic strip

It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Being an arbiter of language, that is. This one came from a friend via Facebook:

Ben, would you mind adjudicating a grammar dispute?

Here’s the quotation:

“As something as horrifying as this afternoon in Boston is literally unfolding, as we are worrying about loved ones who may be affected, we already have to worry about the consequences of backlash violence.”

I say the events were not literally unfolding. My friend says they were, because “reveal” is a valid definition of “unfold.”

Please put us out of our misery.

Here’s my reply:

I will give you my favorite kind of answer, which is that you’re both wrong! “Unfold” means “reveal” only through metaphor, a figure of speech. Your friend can call it a “valid definition,” but saying “literally unfolding” is the same as saying “my face is literally burning.” If that weren’t commonly understood as a metaphor, there would be no reason to say “literally.” That is, not to belabor the point, you wouldn’t say “my face is literally hot.”

As for you, you are wrong for being a “literally” snob, which is tiresome.

I can actually pinpoint the date, down to the week, when I first became aware that there might conceivably be a problem with the word literally. On September 8, 1975, The New Yorker published a piece of fiction by Renata Adler called “Speedboat.” The disaffected narrator, a journalist named Jen Fain, is listing some clichés and hyperbolic bromides she finds endemic to book and movie reviewers, and comes to this: “‘Literally,’ in every single case, meant figuratively; that is, not literally. This film will literally grab you by the throat. This book will literally knock you out of your chair.”

Reading that in my dorm room literally blew my mind, and quite possibly set me on the path to becoming a language arbiter, or at least a self-described one. (Adler subsequently published that and a few other pieces as a novel, also called Speedboat. New York Review Books has just brought out a new paperback edition, and I commend it to your attention. Along with works by Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, George W.S. Trow, and Kurt Vonnegut, it is an important station on the cross of 1970s irony.)

I have since learned that Adler/Fain was hardly the first to complain about people saying or writing literally right before engaging in a figure of speech. Back in 1926, the great arbiter himself, H.W. Fowler, wrote:

We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression “not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking,” we do not hesitate to insert the very words we talked to be at pains to repudiate. … Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.

Fowler then quotes some examples from the press, including, “If the Home Rule Bill is passed, the 300,000 Unionists of the South & West of Ireland will be literally thrown to the wolves.”

I came across the Fowler quote in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which, true to form, says that there’s nothing wrong with using literally hyperbolically—”to add emphasis”—and that it’s been used this way forever. Well, maybe not forever, but as far back as Charles Dickens (“‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes on the subject”) and Alexander Pope (“Evry day with me is literally another yesterday, for it is exactly the same”). Merriam-Webster’s gives more recent citations as well, such as:

  • “Your kind letter has left me as literally speechless.”—Archibald MacLeish, 1914
  • “And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.”—Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, English translation, 1959
  • “… make the whole scene literally glow with the fires of his imagination.”—Alfred Kazin, 1968

It’s hard to say for sure, but it appears that the use of figurative literally is on the rise. Certainly, it’s been brought to great prominence in recent years by our vice president, whose almost obsessive reliance on it is documented in this YouTube mashup:

Rob Lowe’s character on TV’s Parks and Recreation, Chris Traeger, literally finds it impossible to avoid as well. His special contribution is an emphasis on the first syllable: “LITT-trally.”

The tradition of hating literally is almost as rich as the tradition of using it. The objections, from Fowler up through Adler through my Facebook friend, are fairly consistent. Easily dismissed, as per usual, is the ambiguity argument. A friend of my friend joined our Facebook discussion and observed, “If I say ‘I was literally glued to my seat,’ how do you know if I actually was or if it’s just hyperbole?’” Well, no. Human beings and the English language are such that when a person has been glued to a seat and has lived to tell the tale, his or her listener will bloody well understand that glue was involved. The OED’s definition of “good” literally is, “Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense”; that sense will be almost always be clear no matter how many times Joe Biden or Chris Traeger uses the word the other way. I searched Google News for “literally,” and 19 of the most recent 20 uses were literal and completely unambiguous, for example, “Are dolls with wafer-thin and unrealistic body proportions to be blamed for the wrong body image that young girls are suffering from and willing to literally die for?”

On slightly solider ground is the complaint that this usage has got to be off because a word (literally) is used when what’s meant is its opposite. Many mavens–Roy Copperud, for example–advise using figuratively instead, which suggests the flaw in this objection. If you are being figurative, you would never throw in “figuratively”; that would defeat the very purpose of your figuration. In fact, we often say or write things that aren’t true, and sometimes denote the opposite of the truth, with no great harm done. People often say things like, “He was running so fast, he was really flying.” In point of fact, he wasn’t flying, much less “really” flying. Yet the “honest traffic in words” manages to survive. I suspect that literally has gotten particular grief because of the mere existence of figuratively. That is, the fact there’s no fakely or similar word, so the use of really to characterize unreal things has escaped unscathed.

Critiques of literally are common fare among the worthies at Language Log, as in this piece, where Mark Liberman has interesting things to say about the variant “almost literally.”

The fact remains that using literally to strengthen a figurative statement is pretty weak. It’s tantamount to admitting you’ve chosen a figure of speech that literally can’t stand on its own two legs and needs to be propped up by boy-who-cried-wolf reinforcements. Moreover, it opens you up to being mocked by, well, everybody, and who needs that?

So my final comment on the literally users, the literally haters, and the literally defenders is my favorite kind of comment. You’re all wrong.

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