A Word, Please: Does the word ‘literally’ literally drive you crazy?
The city was brought literally to its knees.
When he heard the news, he literally flew off the handle.
She literally went ballistic.
If you like unambiguous communication, if you like logic, if you like having a word that means “take these words at face value and don’t mistake them for mere metaphor,” then you hate how the word “literally” is used in these sentences.
But what if you don’t stop there? What if you hate “It knocked him literally unconscious” when referring to someone who walked into a pole and fell to the ground where he lay nonresponsive? What if you hate “The business literally shuttered its doors” to describe a store where slats of wood were hammered over the entrance? What if you hate “I’m literally freezing to death” spoken by a character in a novel right before he dies of exposure?
Then you just might be Trigger Smith, proprietor of a bar called the Continental in New York City’s East Village, where a few months ago Smith posted this sign in the window in all capital letters: “Sorry but if you say the word ‘literally’ inside the Continental you have 5 minutes to finish your drink and then you must leave. If you actually start a sentence with ‘I literally’ you must leave immediately!!! This is the most overused, annoying word in the English language and we will not tolerate it. Stop Kardashianism now!”
Where to start?
How about with Smith’s gratuitous use of the word “actually,” a vexing term that ranks even higher than “literally” on some editors’ “words to chop” lists?
How about with the punctuation, or lack thereof?
How about with the fact that some of us were happier not knowing even this much about Kardashians?
Or we could take another tack and start by admitting that Smith may be right that “literally” is overused and that the Continental’s policy clearly falls under the policy of “We reserve the right to refuse service for any reason.”
All legitimate points.
“Literally” rouses people’s emotions, the most popular emotion being anger. Many insist “literally” can’t be used as an “intensifier,” meaning just for emphasis. Instead, they say, it must mean “in a literal sense or manner … in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression,” as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary puts it in its first definition of “literally.”
There’s a lot to like there: one word with a very specific job of saying “don’t mess with the meaning of these words.”
But not even “literally” is that literal. Here’s Merriam’s second definition: “in effect, virtually — used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible; ‘will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice’ — Norman Cousins.”
In other words, all those annoying figurative uses of “literally” also are correct. And if you find that hard to swallow, you’re not alone. Even Merriam seems a bit lukewarm on users who take too many liberties with “literally.”
“Sense 2 is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse,” Merriam’s editors write. “It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”
I suspect this is what our aforementioned barkeep meant by “Kardashianism.”
Personally, I find the bartender’s policy a little hypocritical. I mean, if a guy named Trigger Smith were really committed to strict literal usage, he would have chosen a career shaping metal into small parts for firearms.
But then, maybe I’m projecting my own feelings about figurative speech onto him, seeing as I was -born in March and live in a medium-sized house.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.