Yesterday the always entertaining "Editorial Emergency!" team of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner contributed a column on the misuse of the word literally. I keep tabs on people's pet peeves about English usage, and this is certainly one of the most widespread complaints currently in circulation. There's even a blog entirely devoted to "tracking abuse" of literally. I agree with Simon and Julia that using literally as an intensifier can often "strain credulity" when it's emphasizing a figurative expression like "a handful of Jewish members." But allow me to play devil's advocate for the much-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally. Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free.
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and the subject of our recent three-part interview on the OED, wrote eloquently on the subject for the online magazine Slate in 2005. He points out that gripes about literally are a relatively modern phenomenon dating to the early twentieth century, even though examples of the "bad" intensive usage can be found long before that in the work of esteemed writers. I went hunting for early examples of literally intensifying something not so literal and found eighteenth-century attestations like these:
I look upon it, Madam, to be one of the luckiest circumstances of my life, that I have this moment the honour of receiving your commands, and the satisfaction of confirming with my tongue, what my eyes perhaps have but too weakly expressed — that I am literally the humblest of your servants.
— George Colman and David Garrick, The Clandestine Marriage (1766)
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.
— Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague (1769)
Even in the 1760s, writers could take a metaphorical expression — "the humblest of your servants" or "to feed among the lilies" — and give it extra emphasis by adding the word literally. And several decades before that, Alexander Pope made use of literally in his correspondence for something that seems pretty non-literal:
Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same.
— Alexander Pope, Letter to H. Cromwell (18 Mar. 1708)
Unless Pope was living his life like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, it's hard to imagine that each of his days was actually "another yesterday."
For centuries, literally has served as an intensifier for expressions both actual and metaphorical, but the metaphorical side of the usage began to come under fire about a century ago from usage mavens like H.W. Fowler, who decried those who "do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." Fowler's gripe, like those who have followed him, is that literally has been extended to mean the exact opposite of its "true" sense. It's become a so-called "Janus word," semantically facing in two contradictory directions. This kind of flip-flop does happen from time to time in the history of English usage — see the recent Word Routes column on the word subprime for a timely example. But not every Janus word falls under the same kind of vituperation that literally has confronted in the last hundred years.
Consider other adverbial intensifiers that would seem to describe something as actually existing in a non-metaphorical state: really, truly, absolutely, and positively. Here are some mid-nineteenth century literary examples from Dickens and Thackeray:
But the weather is extremely trying, and she really has been bored to death down at our place in Lincolnshire.
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
How good, how kind, how truly angelical you are!
— William Makepeace Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring (1855)
The Captain was absolutely rooted to the ground, and speechless.
— Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1848)
By heavens, mon cher Abbe, a charming creature, but a tigress — positively a tigress.
— William Makepeace Thackeray, Catherine (1839)
Why don't we hold these intensifiers to the same standard as literally? Is "really bored to death" only acceptable when boredom is indeed fatal, or "truly angelical" when actual angels are being described (assuming you believe in their existence)? In a similar fashion, absolutely and positively can be used to emphasize states of being that are not necessarily the absolute, positive truth, but are instead only metaphorically true, like being "rooted to the ground" or resembling a "tigress."
I think one reason that literally gets singled out for special criticism is that we all learn in school the difference between literal and figurative meaning. So it grates on the ear when a figurative turn of speech is given the "literal" treatment. We're not so attuned to the mismatch of other "real and true" adverbs getting used for purposes of hyperbole, a figure of speech that sets up scenarios that are neither real nor true. Still, whether it's literally or some other emphatic adverb, Simon and Julia's advice stands: don't strain credulity when you're already depicting something outside of reality. Used effectively, hyperbole should work perfectly well on its own, without needing to add an intensifier like literally. At best it's redundant, and at worst it's an annoying distraction that is sure to raise the hackles of Grumpy Grammar Gus.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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