The Literally Edition
The Short Story - Issue 15 - July.2021
This week, I’ve been thinking about the word literally. I’ve literally been thinking about the word literally. People have big feelings about that word and whether or not it’s being used correctly. I’m going to start with a confession — I’m not one of them. I love the word literally. I’m team Literally Has Always Been Used For Hyperbole. Go Team LHABUFH!!
Once, at an event, I was telling a friend, “yeah, I literally bumped into her the other day…” when a stranger turned around abruptly and said, “Umm, you mean figuratively, don’t you??”
Dear readers, before I continue this story, let me pause here a moment and tell you that I have degrees in both Speech Communications and English. Not only am I a writer and a public speaker, but I’m a huge word nerd and I’ve spent most of my adult life studying how people talk to each other, the best ways to do so, and how to choose the right words. Does that mean I use language perfectly? Nope. It means I know that language is merely a way to connect with other people and I have strong opinions on not policing speech and grammar. This man didn’t know any of that, of course, or me, but he did hear what he assumed to be an incorrect use of the word literally and he excitedly jumped at the chance to correct this poor, misguided woman.
So, there we are, his “umm, you mean figuratively, don’t you??” hanging in the air when I tilted my head, smiled, looked him in the eyes and said, “Hi there! No, I mean LITERALLY. I was walking and LITERALLY bumped into her with my left arm. Man, it still hurts.”
His face literally fell and he turned back to his own conversation. I won that round, but who will win the ‘literally’ cup? Go Team LHABUFH!!
With language experts like Mark Twain and Merriam-Webster on one side of us and that guy who always says, "uh, you meant figuratively" when you try to tell a funny story on the other — let's literally dive into the linguistic fray in The Literally Edition.
Despite all the recent furor over the “correct” use of literally — it’s been acceptable to use literally for emphasis for a very long time.
Kory Stamper tells us, “Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace all used the emphatic “literally” in their works.” Guys, that’s an impressive list of people who were really, really good at language-ing.
It’s the ultimate hyperbole. What could be more hyperbolic than using a word that implies something actually happened for something that only figuratively happened? It’s kinda genius, right?
Does this mean that the “only use literally in a literal sense” people won’t still have strong feelings about it? No, and apparently, they’ve taken to writing THE DICTIONARY to tell them about it.
Because Merriam-Webster defines literally both ways:
1) in a literal sense or manner : actually
2) in effect : virtually
they’ve received a plethora of comments and messages about how they’re ruining our language — and yet, “Literally every modern dictionary includes a definition for the metaphoric or intensifying sense of the word literally.”
I highly advise you to read the whole hilarious post and then maybe think twice before ever bad mouthing the folks at Merriam-Webster — dude, they’ll FIND YOU.
Okay, so we’ve established that the “new” use of the word literally is not new at all. So, people being upset about someone using a word incorrectly is what’s new, right? Nope. People are gonna people, man.
“Language is tied inextricably to the people who use it. It’s a tool we use for communication — and it’s also liable to be used as a bludgeon. We peeve to make it clear that we are better-educated, smarter, and even slightly morally better than those dingbats who use the emphatic “literally.”’ — Kory Stamper in an amazing piece for The Cut. Omg, go read the whole article, it’s so good.
As I mentioned in the intro, I’m not a fan of policing grammar or word choices — too often racism, sexism, classism, or other grody things hide behind language purity. Does this mean I don’t have my own peeves? No. I, too, have been known to wince at incorrect apostrophes or shudder when hearing the word, “irregardless,” but I try to remember to literally choose my figurative battles. At the end of the day, all that matters are that words are pretty dang fun.
Jomo and the Possum Posse are literally my favorite band, so of course they have the perfect song for this newsletter.
Words change meaning, they evolve, and yet somehow we keep on communicating and understanding each other. Mostly.
Okay, that’s it for this edition! You’re all LITERALLY my favorite people.
If you’re a fan of the non-literal usage of literally, let me know! OR, if you’re a language purist who literally hates when literally is used for emphasis, well let me know that too — but keep in mind, I’m gonna look at you like this:
Until next time,
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Well done. I liked that you started with Twain. I recently published (in toto) his essay The Awful German Language. I doubt anyone read the whole thing, but if you're literally brave... https://jhardycarroll.substack.com/p/how-to-be-funny
This is great—and I wholeheartedly agree with your enlightened grammar/word use policy. The only time I correct things now is if it's in some kind of corporate communication and I am being paid to make sure things look/sound right.
Otherwise, vibe and let vibe.