My complicated relationship with the word “literally” began earlier this year. Two of my best friends began a Twitter account called Literally a Handle, which retweets overheard misuses of the word (my personal favorite being “my personal trainer’s legs are literally tree trunks”).
My ears have become tuned to how frequently it occurs in daily conversations. It has become a mainstream prop word, sometimes used accurately; other times, monstrously inaccurately.
Everyone has a crutch word that ends up starring frequently in sentences. Once, I dropped an anthropology class because the professor said “as such” more than 60 times in a lecture. The word “literally” is the action-movie of crutch words, meant to add thrilling detail to an otherwise mundane statement (“I literally just got out of class.” Really? Wow, sounds intense!).
More often, though, the L-word is used as the opposite of what it means, instead of “figuratively” or “metaphorically.” Last election season, Sarah Palin’s spokeswoman described her to Anderson Cooper on CNN by stating that “the world is literally her oyster.” A more accurate — though maybe not particularly useful — statement would have been to say “The world is literally not Sarah Palin’s oyster” which, in these politically divided times, is perhaps an observation we can all get behind.
Its misuse is nonpartisan, however. Joe Biden famously abused it 10 times during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, causing the Obama campaign to take out an ad for the word on Twitter. Pretty much everyone is guilty of using it in an incorrect or ironic way.
But even if you are an adverb puritan, chances are people are going to get annoyed very quickly if you start using “figuratively” in sentences (You figuratively puked your brains out? OK, shut up).
Does it matter if we use words correctly?
While the cultural relevance of the word “literally” is obvious, what it says about us is, perhaps, not.
On the one hand, without meaning — literal meaning — we are rudderless speakers, incapable of committing to a definition. There is often a gulf between what we say and what we mean to say, and at some point we have to confront that. Self-awareness is one of the primary hallmarks of our generation. The world “literally” is a motif of such irony, a meta-joke that discloses its own incorrectness.
On the other hand, it is pedantic to mourn the loss of a definition.
Language is malleable. It isn’t dead; our use of it just constantly evolves. Even hashtags, ironic cousins of word crutches, reveal our contemporary delight in playing with language. With the hashtag, a phrase like “Binders Full of Women” can (metaphorically) catch fire and carry on like some huge inside joke.
The territory of ironic language is uncharted, unpolished. But that doesn’t mean it’s doomed. Literally, it’s not.
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