There are those who misuse the word “literally,” and those who don’t—or so they think.
Sports announcers are among the most egregious perpetrators. “If you cross him he’ll literally rip your face off,” an ESPN radio personality once remarked. They seemingly cannot grasp the silliness of their statements.
Meanwhile, the people eschewing misuse are peevish about this manhandling of the English language.
“ ‘Literally’ has been so overused as a sort of vague intensifier that it is in danger of losing its literal meaning,” offered the Web site Common Errors in English. “It should be used to distinguish between a figurative and a literal meaning of a phrase. It should not be used as a synonym for ‘actually’ or ‘really.’ ”
And then, somewhere in between, are the grammarians that understand its definition, but defend other people’s right to abuse “literally”—even do it themselves. Why? Because they have a dirty secret, a sort of Da Vinci Code for grammarians that might rattle your world.
Grammar’s Da Vinci Code
Here’s the Da Vinci Code thing about “literally”: Both sides are using it wrong. “Literally” is of Greek origin and means “word for word.” For example, “He translated the book literally, that is, word for word.” There’s nothing in the original definition about “actually” or “without definition.”
Whether it’s “literally raining cats or dogs” or “literally hailing,” both uses are incorrect.
“… when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general —we are already walking down the figurative path …” Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Shiedlower explained in a 2005 NPR piece.
So why has “literally” come under fire? After all, many words are used in a contradictory way. Take the word “dust,” Shiedlower explained on NPR. It has two contradictory meanings: to remove dust and to add dust.
Similarly the word “really” has become a misused intensifier. When someone gripes, “This assignment is really a pain-in-the-butt,” then is that task actually hurting his or her buttocks?
“Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as ‘wrong,’ the ‘right’ meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word’s etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically,” Shiedlower said. “It’s not always possible to predict when something will be condemned …”
So what happened?
It’s hard to tell why or even how the meaning of “literally” changed, other than to explore the time line of its evolution.
“Literally” first appeared in English around 1533 with its intended meaning, “word for word.” Somehow by the 17th and 18th centuries, popular writers—John Dryden, Alexander Pope—were using “literally” to intensify true statements, Shiedlower explained.
For instance, in the early 19th century, “Jane Austen, in Sanditon, wrote of a stormy night that, ‘We had been literally rocked in our bed.’ ” Sheidlower said on NPR.
Then somehow by the late 1800s, writers as hallowed as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens had adopted “literally” to mean its exact opposite: to intensify exaggerated or hyperbolic statements.
For example, in David Copperfield, published 1850, Dickens wrote, “There is never a candle lighted in this house, until one’s eyes are literally falling out of one’s head with being stretched to read the paper.”
However, grammarians of the 20th century weren’t having it. Ambrose Bierce seemed to capture the grammarian’s Zeitgeist when he wrote in his 1909 book, Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, that “literally” abuse was “intolerable,” explained Sheidlower.
That seemed to secure the new definition, “literally” means “actually.” Today bloggers and assorted critics are left to defend its new meaning.
Join the exaggerators
It seems we all abuse “literally” in one way or another, so if you’re among the peevish lot, try going all the way. Let your hair down, join the exaggerators, fly that freak flag. Proclaim, “If you don’t approve this article, I will literally pull my hair out!”
Just make sure you avoid the sport announcers’ rap. Heed Jesse Shiedlower’s advice: Don’t make silly sounding statements. “The one sensible criticism that can be made about the intensive use of literally is that it can often lead to confusing or silly sounding results,” he said. “In this case, the answer is simple: Don’t write silly soundingly.”
A semi-educated adult shouldn’t claim, “The batter literally hit that ball into the stratosphere where God scooped it up, dipped it in chocolate and ate it”—and neither should you.
This story originally appeared on Ragan.com.