The abuse of the word ‘literally’

hemingway gun

Ernest Hemingway, shirtless, holding a shotgun

I know literally isn’t a real word anymore. Merriam-Webster knows, too. The venerable dictionary gives two definitions for literally. The first is the original definition; the second says it means the opposite of the first definition. This is the literary equivalent of crossing the streams.

People always have misused words, and they will continue to misuse words because, 1) people aren’t always smart, and 2) malapropisms are funny. So I am OK with this bastardization of literally, unless you’re a professional writer. In that case, you should go to hell, or, at least, an English class.

If you’re paid to write, it should be important to you, your editor and your employer that your writing is correct, regardless of whatever the popular definition of literally, irony or notoriety may be. My grievance is that many professionals don’t care or, worse, don’t know, especially those writing for media outlets disproportionately beholden to the web click.

I accept that literally is a lost cause. The dictionary already caved, and adverb-based exaggeration is the favorite literary device of my generation. But if there could be justice… literally would be discontinued as a word and offenders would be forced to wear a silly hat. Professional writers who misuse it would be made to feel really, really bad about themselves and wear the silly hat.

The misuse of literally is a common mistake, and it annoys me because I am a professional writer. I worked as a newspaper reporter for seven years. If someone told me that I misused a word as obvious as literally, I’d be ashamed. Accuracy equals gravitas, and any mistake undercuts your authority.

It’s possible that what’s happened to literally is just part of the evolution of language. Words change meaning over time, but it’s disappointing that a word’s meaning changes because people are idiots.

I’m not a philologist, so I can’t say if idiocy is a leading factor in language evolution. And neither of the writers of these stories — here and here — bothered to interview one. Also, Salon’s example — “Literally every pair of shoes I own was ruined when my apartment flooded” — is a weak application. Kill “literally” from the sentence, and the sentence means the same thing.

My inner grumpy old man, when he’s not execrating skateboarders, reasons that literally will not completely change meanings. We still need a word that means literally, if for no other reason than to debate the book of Leviticus. Irony, thanks to high school English classes, also might survive and, in the process, maybe introduce people to another fun word: coincidentally. I see no hope for notoriety.


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