Literally, stop saying “literally”

I just stopped reading a blog piece I was interested in because the author used the word “literally” twice, both superfluously, before the third paragraph had ended. I mean, I literally stopped reading. Literally. Stopped.

But how else can I stop, besides literally? If I had done anything but actually stop reading, then I would use another word or phrase, such as “slowed down”, “took a break from” or “read with less interest”. But I stopped reading, which means my reading ceased, it came to an end.

Friends, we have a problem with the word “literally”. We have become utterly addicted to throwing it into sentences. Its overuse knows few bounds. I hear my college students overusing it, I hear adults overusing it, I hear second-graders overusing it. I went to an academic conference last month where it was so overused that at one point during a mid-afternoon breakout, I had the following text exchange with my colleague who sat next to me:

Me: If one more person says “literally” I’m going to flip out.

Colleague: Literally flip out? That’d be fun.

I desperately searched for an emoji that would signify my literal flipping out to no avail, but the search provided a welcome, momentary distraction from my cresting annoyance.

Another way I’ve checked my annoyance at this unfortunate trend in English vernacular is to consider the possible intentions behind it. Why are speakers doing this? What need does this word fill in conveying meaning? For many overusers, “literally” purports to place emphasis on the word it modifies. For example, while “I am literally crying with laughter!” means quite the same as “I am crying with laughter!”, literally is thrown in (superfluously) to add emphasis to the hilarity of the situation.

I hate to be a grammatical downer, but in a Judeo-Christian logos epistemology, words are not just letters on a page or syllables of sound we cast about willy-nilly, in the hopes of being known, however imprecisely. Rather words are living pillars of effective meaning – sharper, as it were, than a two-edged sword. In the ancient Hebrew understanding, dabar meant not just “word” but also “deed,” so wed were these concepts of “saying” and “doing”. It is with this performative sense of “word” that John begins his Gospel account: “In the beginning was the Word/And the Word was with God/And the Word was God./He was in the beginning with God./All things came to be through him/and without him, nothing came to be.” It is out of the desire for our words to mean something, to indicate truth in a fundamental way that St. Augustine advises his flock in his most famous sermon. To say “Amen,” he says, to the communion minister’s “The Body of Christ,” is to pledge oneself to the ongoing, sacrificial endeavor of living as Christ’s Body: to do the things Christ did, like preach, teach, heal and live the Gospel truth. “So be a member of the Body of Christ,” says Augustine, “in order to make that ‘Amen’ true.” There are no throw-away words, friends. If there are, we should throw them away before they ever leave our lips.

Maybe I’m making something out of nothing here with this “literally” business. Maybe I’m just grammatically grumpy. Maybe not. Here are three reasons not to indulge this harmless-seeming trend of throwing “literally” into every sentence of our modern parlance, to take or leave. Literally.

1. “Literally” has a distinct and specific meaning, that is: “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” By erroneously using this meaningful word, we evacuate it of its real meaning, blunting a formerly sharp tool in our linguistic tool box. Alternatively, when words are permitted, through precise and selective usage, to remain sharp, our language has more power. “In our own city, many children are literally starving to death.” In this sentence, the word literally helpfully distinguishes “starving” from its more metaphorical or hyperbolic use: “Let’s go to lunch, I’m starving to death!”

2. Now, some extra-hungry (but generally well-fed) person might be tempted to add “literally” to this declaration that it’s time for lunch: “Let’s go to lunch, I’m literally starving to death!” When I hear such usage, my grammatical wince turns into a shudder of linguistic revulsion, because such usage is a clear symptom of the overly-hyperbolic character of our modern speech. Why must we state everything in the most extreme terms? I have a friend who used to chide those around her for claiming that they were “starving” when in fact they were just privileged people, ready for a meal. Our hyperbolic use of language, she said, belittles those who are actually (literally) malnourished. At the time, I didn’t agree with her, and her criticism of our metaphorical use of language annoyed me. Now, when I hear people add “literally” to myopic declarations of being “starving,” I can see what she meant. Adding “literally” in this case (and in many others) pushes meaning off a cliff.

But I get the temptation to use hyperbolic speech. For one, it’s effective. For another, everyone does it. Georgetown linguistics professor Jennifer Sclafani notes that President Trump’s direct and hyperbolic speech patterns make him relatable to voters, because he talks “like everybody else”. And Sclafani notes popular associations of this type of language with strength and effectiveness factored into Trump’s election. “President Trump creates a spectacle in the way that he speaks,” she says. “So it creates a feeling of strength for the nation, or it creates a sense of determination, a sense that he can get the job done through his use of hyperbole and directness.” (Read the full Washington Post piece here.)  Unfortunately, Trump’s use of hyperbole is often a cover for bald-faced lies, for emotionally-manipulative misrepresentations of proven fact. As Travis Prinzi said in his featured talk on Rowling and Orwell for this year’s Chestnut Hill Harry Potter conference, Googling “Trump’s lies” results in more search results than any human being can or should ever have to sift through. With every hyperbole-turned-lie, Trump rides the wave of this linguistic trend of American speech, and the veracity and effectiveness of our language as a vehicle for truth is compromised.

3. Not all uses of “literally” are as offensive as those which claim to be “literally starving” (or “literally so poor” – privileged college and graduate students are fond of this one, as if their wealth is non-existent, not just temporarily tied up in their education). But even at its mildest, using “literally” for emphasis rather than as an indicator of exact or literal truth denotes another sad shift in our modern thinking: the emphasis on the veracity of literal understandings over and above the metaphorical. This shift is evidenced in everything from the modern decline of liberal arts education, to the rise of Biblical literalism, even among Catholics, to the “Potter Panic” of the early 2000s among Christian evangelicals, who burned the Harry Potter books, failing to recognize the magic within them on the level at which it is most significant and meaningful – that is, as a Tolkienian metaphor for the numinous, a pointer to the power and presence of God in our mundane, “Muggle” world. Every time we add “literally” to our speech to give it emphasis, we subtly endorse a modern mythos that claims literal interpretations are the ones that really matter.

I’ve sat on this post for a while, because I hesitate to tell anyone what they should or should not say. But this “literally” trend is, ironically, a pointer to bigger issues. Perhaps what I am saying here is similar to St. Augustine’s message in Sermon 272: say “literally” all you want, just make sure you really mean it.

One Reply to “Literally, stop saying “literally””

  1. Absolutely brilliant post, Emily! I love the two layers of meaning in dabar.
    Literally is horribly over used but I can forgive more in spoken than written words.
    I think one of the joys of reading a good book (apart from the story) is the sheer pleasure of words skilfully used. Jane Austin, PG Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett are a masterclass in this.

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