January 28, 2015

BYRNE | Literally Speaking

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“I was literally head over heels.”

“We’ve been here for literally forever.”

“Oh my god, Taylor Swift’s new album, I’m literally dying.”

When teenage girls first started saying “literally” in the place of “like,” I was upset. The English language is so near and dear to my heart that it was emotionally difficult for me to see a perfectly good word appropriated in such a meaningless way. However, as time went on — I shudder to say it — I started using it, too. I don’t know if you know how hard it is to resist a cultural tide like this, but it’s literally impossible. (That was a joke. Sort of. It creeps into my vocabulary when I least expect it.) In the end, I am basically a teenage girl; it’s only in my nature.

So, after reading many, many articles condemning popular use of “literally,” I decided to actually look up the definition of the word. When googling “literally,” two definitions come up: 1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly. 2. Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true.

This irked me incredibly, and rekindled my hatred for the word. How can “literally” literally mean “not literally”? But then, I considered the source. Not that Google isn’t the paragon of truth and goodness, but sometimes, it’s not. So, I searched further — in the Oxford English Dictionary — because, call me old-fashioned, it just sounds more legit than Google.

Other than the original sense — the opposite of figuratively — OED also defines “literally” as follows: “Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.”

Another glorious detail that the OED provides is the word’s history of usage. Lo and behold, the first use of “literally” in this non-literal manner was in 1769! My dear reader, this is an important point because the Internet is littered with articles with titles such as, “Have We Literally Broken the English Language?” “Misuse of Literally Makes Me Figuratively Insane,” even the blunt, “Stop Saying ‘Literally.’” But, centuries before Beliebers and iCarly-watchers “literally couldn’t even,” Frances Brooke wrote The History of Emily Montague, considered to be Canada’s first novel. On page 73, Brooke writes, “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”

And so, I rest my case. Is it annoying when people say literally to fill the spaces between their disjointed words and thoughts? Yes. Am I jealous of how adorable Augustus Waters is in The Fault in Our Stars when he and Hazel discuss literality? Yes. But, is the use of the word literally in and of itself objectionable in this un-literal context? I must admit, begrudgingly, that the answer is no.

When I pitched the idea for this column to some of my friends, they all told me not to write it. But then I watched Season Two of Parks and Recreation, in which Chris Traeger, the prince of “literally,” is portrayed by the wonderfully fantastic and beautiful Rob Lowe. In response to the idea of a low-calorie calzone, Chris says, “That idea is literally the best idea I’ve ever heard.” I’m not sure if this is a “correct” use of literality, since a low-cal calzone does indeed seem like one of the best ideas ever. However, thanks to this moment, I discovered that “literally” is simply another expression of hyperbole, akin to any other youthful colloquialism of any other decade. The “totally” of the modern era.

It is a dangerous business to criticize other people’s use of language, as is evidenced here, where I think I used “literally” about 500 times in the 700 words (rough estimate). While I was perusing the Internet for critiques of “literally,” I found more than a couple pointing out that young women are frequently the agents of change in our language. For example, the fact that we now say “like” instead of “um” or “uh” to fill pauses in our speech is a linguistic invention of teenage girls. Instead of hating on teenage girls (who came up with the very phrase “hating on”), how about a little respect for their linguistic power?

In conclusion, I think Mark Twain said it best in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, after Tom tricks everyone into painting his fence: “When the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.” Roll on, Tom, roll on.