Those who are familiar with Frasier would certainly recall that language was one of the things Frasier and Niles were nitpicky about. In one episode, Frasier manages to irritate a caller by commenting on his inappropriate use of literally: “I’m sorry Doug, can we just go back a second? You said your mother literally hangs around the house. Well, I suppose it’s a pet peeve of mine but I suppose what you mean is that she figuratively “hangs around” the house. To literally hang around the house you’d have to be a bat or spider monkey”. (You can read the entire dialogue here.) This does not end well as Doug gets annoyed and hangs up on Frasier after calling him ‘an intellectual pinhead with a superiority complex’.
The use of language jokes is not new in film and television productions. Nonstandard language, dialectal features, particular intonation patterns or peculiar ways of saying things are resources writers and actors tap into in order to depict a particular character or quality. Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady is a very good example. This is not a recent practice; playwrights and novelists have always made use of dialectal features for various effects, including humour. In the case of Frasier, for instance, his language nitpicking goes hand in hand with his pretentious demeanour. The use of nonstandard forms in literary productions is actually one way in which historical sociolinguists can study language variation in the past.
What I find particularly interesting in the scene from Frasier, however, is that the nonliteral use of literally is just one part of the reference to current language use. What is referred to here is also the practice of correcting other people’s grammar and the social value assigned to it. We see an instance of what Anne Curzan calls prescriptivist metadiscourses, or ‘conversations about the conversations about language’. In one episode of Friends, for instance, Ross and Chandler try to help Joey learn how to repel women; the advice Ross (a paleontology PhD) gives Joey, based on his personal experience, is that girls don’t like it when guys correct their grammar (which, in the context of Friends, is very much a ‘Ross’ thing to do).
It is also peculiar that other situations in which such jokes are made mostly involve the same examples: literally and whom seem to be the favourites. Parks and Recreation made the nonliteral, and exaggerated, use of literally one of Chris Traeger’s traits as an extreme optimist. In Archer, for instance, one of the running jokes is the confusion over literally and figuratively, where characters are constantly correcting their uses of literally to a point of comical confusion about what exactly is being said.
What we can learn from looking at these examples is not only how the use of literally is changing, but also how speakers react to it. Sitcoms, very much like literary productions, provide insights into the shared language norms of a community and the social value of particular language variants.