I’m a word nerd; I’ll own it. Maybe even a snob, although I prefer the term connoisseur (but I guess that proves my point).
I even like words about words. Vernacular. Semantics. Etymology.
There’s just something about using our lexicon thoughtfully that really lights my fire. And something about misusing it that really chaps my hide.
Part of it is that we’ve come all this way from grunts and etchings to develop complex ways of communicating our ideas and feelings, and so I feel like we ought to employ them, you know?
Sure, mistakes happen. We bend grammar rules for effect (hi, incomplete sentence). And things evolve (remember when we weren’t supposed to start sentences with conjunctions?).
That’s all fine.
But there’s a new trend that is going too far. We have to maintain some decency and stop using “literally” to mean the exact opposite.
Oh, you literally died, did you? That’s nuts, because you seem super alive right now.
Or you literally crapped your pants? Eek, seems like something you might consider only discussing with your doctor, dry cleaners or the cashier when you buy adult diapers.
Stop it, you guys.
For the record, it’s not that it’s incorrect that makes it so problematic. If that were the case, I’d also be ranting about people who describe themselves as speechless (which, you know, by using words, they are obviously not).
In fact, since dictionaries aren’t only arbiters of correct word definitions, but also records of how we speak, even the Oxford English Dictionary references our colloquial use of “literally” “to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.” There you have it; the authority says “literally” means “figuratively.”
So, I’m not saying it’s necessary wrong; I’m saying it’s ill-advised.
It’s just that we’re embarking on a new (and tragic) era of tolerated purposeful dishonesty or exaggeration. Our political discourse at times feels like we’re teetering on the precipice of some alternate dimension where fact and fiction are convoluted for the exclusive benefit of a small and powerful minority.
It’s not awesome.
But I think we can fight the decline. And while one little word might seem a trivial contribution to the restoration of trust and decency, the commitment to mean what we say is not.
So, can we just do this one little thing? Can we keep “literally” literal and make English great again?
Because the last thing we need is for hyperbole to further define reality.
Marina Gomberg’s lifestyle columns appear on sltrib.com. She is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.