I’ve been whinging about this for years, so thought it high time I actually wrote about it. But then again, I’ve probably left it too long for it to matter anymore, so this may all be a bit pointless really.
But I’ll give my twopence nonetheless…
Apart from a few rare instances, I despise the use of the word ‘literally’. I really do. I actually, genuinely and positively hate it; I mean, like, really detest it. Catch my drift?
Good, because not once did I have to say the word ‘literally’ in describing my hatred of it. Which is more than I can say for countless swathes of humans who cannot help but use it three times in every sentence. This is my first beef: it’s become one of those add-on, fill-in words that has no meaning or relevance to what is being said. It’s a kind of polite swearword.
Except it’s not polite. Well not to me at least. I’d rather hear a swearword, thankyou very much.
And the reason I’d rather hear a swearword is because they’re supposed to be fill-in words, used for emphasis or because you can’t think of something. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care too much for them either (they’re not big or clever, unless you’re Billy Connolly), but at least they’re honest.
‘Literally’, on the other hand, was designed for another purpose. Believe it or not kids (and adults who should know better), it is a proper word. It has its own definition in the Oxford dictionary and everything. Regardé…
“LITERALLY (ADV): In a literal manner or sense; exactly.”
So when people say, “OMG, I am literally starving!”, they’re saying it wrong. Unless they really are starving, in which case they probably wouldn’t be saying things like ‘OMG’, or actually talking at all.
But then there’s the argument that it’s ‘for emphasis’. Well here’s my problem with that:
The English language has, very kindly, already given us a whole host of words (adverbs, to be more specific) which give us all the emphasis we need. What’s wrong with ‘very’, ‘extremely’, and so-on? And if you want to be a bit more jazzy, why not try slang such as ‘proper’, ‘pure’,’totes’ or, well, ‘well’?
The answer, you might say, is “Who cares? Seriously, what is wrong with you?” Well I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me: I’m sick to death of YOU assuming that I give a toss about your boring anecdotes, opinions and lives in general. When you use ‘literally’, you say to me “Look at me! I’m so unbelievably ace that I need a new special word to shine a light on my presence! B*****s to those old words, they don’t do me justice at all!”
When actually, what you are really doing is taking a word that was once used in a very unique, quintessentially English-speaking way, and turning it into something very bland, beige and brain-numbingly commonplace. Have you not noticed everyone else doing it? Grow some balls, you tedious, sheep-like, uninspiring excuse for a human being! You literally make me very angry. You literally annoy me, very much. You literally make my life a living state of not being very happy, for a bit. Get out of my face!(metaphorically).
But apart from that, please read on…
You see, I’m actually just jesting. I don’t hate you at all. I’m just trying to cause a bit of excitement so you read on, in much the same way that annoying presenters say very little of interest but say “soooooooooo cool” or “ab-so-lute-ly faaaaaaaaaantastic” in over-the-top ways that actually do work on a lot of people. But what I do want to do, hopefully, is help you to see the light about ‘literally’, by explaining how it should be properly used.
Remember how I said I despise the use of the word ‘apart from in a few instances’, well let me explain what those instances are – with an example…
“I was left holding the baby. Literally!”
Now to a foreigner, or a native English speaker who hasn’t been around that much or is too young, this sentence wouldn’t be too impressive. But if you know what the idiom ‘left holding the baby means’ (ie left in the lurch), the addition of ‘literally’ gives us a hilarious situation in which someone is put in a difficult situation that, amazingly, just happens to be the very situation described in the idiom!
So if you’d lost your boat’s oar in a river known as ‘The Shit’, you’d literally be up Shit creek without a paddle. If you were too poor to afford even a modest container to urinate in, you’d literally have no pot to p*** in, and if you found it easy to steal candy from babies, you’d literally be a bit of a wrong ‘un. See how it works?
And originally, these were the instances when ‘literally’ was used – in the conversational sense at least. So back in those glory days, it was an accompaniment to some quintessentially-English language anecdotes, rather than an add-on, meaningless word. It was a punchline; the icing on the cake.
So now, hopefully, you’ll see why its misuse is so annoying to me. Saddening even. Nowadays, if you mean ‘literally’ in the original sense, you have to say ‘quite literally’. But it’s getting worse, because the abusers will soon start saying ‘quite literally’ in the wrong way too, so you’ll have to say ‘quite actually literally’, and then they’ll start saying that, so you’ll have to start saying ‘genuinely, quite actually literally’, and then they’ll start saying that, and then it’ll go on forever until you kill everyone.
So there it is, my pedantic bugbear. As I said earlier, I don’t hate all the abusers of Literally (or ‘lichlee’, as the local kids say) – and apologies to anyone I’ve offended with my harsh words. I don’t care all that much really; it’s just a bit irritating. A few years ago, a good few friends who I love and respect dearly were quite into Coldplay – despite the fact that their ‘music’ should be played to terror suspects to get them to spill the beans. Did I hate them? No, I felt great compassion for their sorrowful state. This pity even extended, believe it or not, to the orchestrator himself: Chris Martin. I forgive him, for he knows not what he does. And is quite a nice chap, truth be told.
But luckily, that epidemic seems to have now passed. Fingers crossed, this one will soon be ancient history also. Or already is. If so, I’m literally flogging a dead horse here.
Did I tell you about this weird hobby of mine? I find deceased mares and hit them repeatedly with a whip. A bit weird I know, but I’d do literally anything to ensure I use language correctly.