You’re literally using ‘literally’ wrong


By Nora Swidler

I belong to a generation of exaggerators.  Okay, if I am going to be honest, I am a pretty pompous speaker myself.  I am often the subject of mockery among my friends.

On a team trip to Costa Rica over the summer, my teammates and I were on a catamaran looking out on a beautiful island scene. I turned to a couple of my teammates and said, “The foliage is spectacular.” The two looked at each other, and one said to me in an exasperated voice while laughing, “The trees look nice, Nor.”

Even though I am quite bombastic, there has been a phenomenon with regards to exaggeration that I believe is growing. I am pretty sure that I have heard the word “literally” misused more times than any other. With more than 200,000 words in the English language, the naysayers would say, “Surely there is another word misused more frequently than ‘literally.” However, I am confident that it is literally the most misused word.

When a friend recounts the tale of a funny joke she heard, you hear her say, “and I literally died of laughter!”  Umm, no.  She did not literally die of laughter. She figuratively did.

When another friend says, “My arms literally fell off after lifting,” I happen to know that that is untrue because I see his arms right there attached to his shoulders.

As referenced on one of The Economist blog pages, it is possible that folks feel as though there is not a better intensifier for a statement other than “literally.”  “Actually” does not sound as powerful. “Really” sounds flat-out weak in comparison.  The consequence of this misuse is that “literally” now means “the opposite of literally” in colloquial contexts.  I find it far more endearing than irritating when the word is used in the wrong context.  I had to let out a chuckle when one of my friends said, “There is literally nothing worse than ice cream that is too frozen.”  However, there are many things worse than too-frozen ice cream.




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