When Literally means Literally…

Jasper Spierenburg is another of my MA students working on prescriptivism. Here is his first blogpost:

Literally is an adverb that leaves a lot of listeners in an absolute state of disbelief. Paralyzed and shell-shocked they try to recover from the bomb that was just dropped on what they believe to be their lexical knowledge. With ‘misuse’ of literally reaching a level of annoyance that almost warrants a world-wide lexicon-police, it is television that tries to open a debate. SitComs like The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) and Modern Family (MF) take it upon themselves to correct the wrongness that is literally used in a non-literal manner as the following quotes show (transcripts taken from http://bigbangtrans.wordpress.com and hypnoweb.net):

Episode TBBTThe Justice League Recombination:

Zack: Really? I haven’t been to a comic book store in literally a million years.

Sheldon: Literally? Literally a million years?

Episode MFDance Dance Revolution

Bethenny: Thank you so much. This school would literally fall apart without you.

Claire: Well, I don’t know about “literally,” but…

Episode MFSlow Down Your Neighbors

Cameron: All right. I’m going to the hot tub. If I stay here one more minute, my head is literally gonna explode.

Mitchell: Well, I hope not, because if you mean “literally”…

Cameron: I don’t feel safe in my own home!

As the blog post by Robin Straaijer shows, Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory aren’t the only television shows that use literally in this sense and this begs the question: what exactly is the use of this display of literally on television?

To continue on Robin’s post, there usually seems to be one character – or group of characters – that uses literally wrongly. This creates an individual, or group of specific individuals, that the audience can either like or dislike. Often, someone else on the show then corrects these characters as the quotes above show. This dynamic creates a usage-debate on-screen about the correctness of literally and it seems as if the viewer is invited to take a side.

However, is literally in this non-literal way really wrong? Online guides, like theoatmeal.com, show how to use literally in a correct way and it isn’t hard to find blog posts commenting on literally used in a figurative way and that again underlines the fact that various people have problems with this non-literal use. The OED tells us the other side of the debate in its entry on literally when it gives the following definition under 1c:

Colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually as good as’ ; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’)

This entry tells us that this irregular use is now one of the most common uses, which confirms how topical  the debate is today. So where does this dislike of the wrong use of literally come from?

Liberman and Pullum comment on literally in their book Far From the Madding Gerund (2006) that many of the words on the list of “most irritating clichés in the English language” aren’t really clichés at all and that most of these words are just words that people have taken an irrational dislike to (p. 48). But, how do ‘normal’ words become words that people dislike in a specific usage?

This question seems to be very difficult to answer and even looking through piles of blogs to explain this, an answer seems hard to find. Most comments are posts of bewilderment wondering how anyone with a basic education can confuse literally for figuratively, but does that really constitute the same meaning in these sentences? To me personally, the use of figuratively instead of literally in any of the examples shown above would turn them into failed attempts at humour when the original intention of literally in these sentences is not at all meant to be funny. Zack, Cameron and Bethenny use literally as the strongest intensifier they can think of and any alternative just doesn’t hit the mark … So, in the end, is this use of literally really that abominable that it makes you cringe or should we be a little more lenient and accept it in this widely used way? I mean: do we really all want to be like Sheldon?

Source: Ragan’s PR Daily

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6 Responses to When Literally means Literally…

  1. diane1genie says:

    Mmm.. Is this what ‘really’ has gone through or is still going through? I have noticed that it occurs quite frequently as an intensifying adverb in certain Nickelodeon shows I watch, such as Victorious, Sam and Cat, and Big Time Rush. The sense of ‘in reality’ seems to slowly lose its hold on ‘really’, at least for the younger generations (not entirely sure what the age group is for those shows but I am guessing 12 to 16). Has there been any outcry about ‘really’? Or is the true meaning and/or use of ‘literally’ stronger than the one of ‘really’, and therefore goes by relatively unnoticed?

  2. “But, how do ‘normal’ words become words that people dislike in a specific usage?” To start tow answer this, I first want to address diane1genie’s question about the case of really, which admittedly seems to be similar to that of literally. A possible linguistic explanation is that the literal, etymological meaning of really is not denied when it is used (figuratively) as an intensifier: something that is really (‘very much’) so, is really ‘in reality’ so as well. This is in a way similar to what happened with the semantically related word very, whose etymological meaning goes back to ‘in truth’ or ‘truthfully’, so that that which is very so is also truly so. But this option doesn’t seem to be available for literally, precisely because of the meaning of the word.
    However, I don’t think the answer to the original question can be found in linguistic arguments. It doesn’t explain why there hasn’t been any outcry over really. The answer is more likely to be found in social phenomena, though I have to owe you the precise mechanism by which this occurs. What seems to happen, as I think Liebermann and Pullum suggest, is that particular usage items are picked up by individuals and the media, and grow into shibboleths whose prescribed, ‘correct’ use often serves to index values such as conservativeness and educatedness. Such items, like literally and hopefully, become focal points for discussions of usage and correctness, and the outcy over them is greatly disproportionate to how problematic they actually are.

  3. Please don’t use the term “begs the question” until you can do so correctly. It refers to circular reasoning. What you meant to say was, “prompts the question.”

    • Thank you for your comment! Though these are not my own words, I have always been aquainted with “begs the question” as a typical English idiom. Why are you not happy with it?

      Ingrid Tieken

    • Thomas Hanke says:

      Well, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t use ‘circular’ in the loose sense if you aren’t sure it’s a circle, leaving aside the naive use of ‘term’ and ‘can’… ;) seriously, this issue should be on the list of things to be diminished by 10%.

  4. I’ve written a more detailed analysis of the actual usage of ‘literally’ which demonstrates that not only is its use as an intensifier primary and long-standing, but also there are almost no examples of ‘literally’ used to mean what the prescriptivists claim it means. Here’s the detail: http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/02/literally-triumph-of-pet-peeve-over-matter.

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