The English language is a marvelous construct. We have at our disposal a virtually endless menu of words with which to communicate just about anything we’d want to say. Sometimes we have more than one word for the same thing, representing the subtlest of variations thereof. Sometimes we even have more than one word for the exact same thing. And when we don’t have a word for something, we coin one; that’s part of the language’s design. Without that kind of expandability, we’d be without some very useful words that didn’t previously exist—words like texting, multitasking, transgender, upload, clickbait, binge-watch, birtherism, selfie, and many more.
Our language is so sophisticated and specific that we actually have a word we can use when we’re describing something outrageous, unusual, or impressive and we want to indicate to the listener that we’re not exaggerating. That word is the word “literally.”
If I told you I received fifty-seven phone calls today, I’d understand if you were skeptical (and not just because it's hard to believe anyone would want to call me). I might just be saying I had a lot of calls. But if I really received that actual number of phone calls, I could indicate that by adding the word “literally.” That would tell you that I’m using fifty-seven in a literal sense, as opposed to figuratively.
“Literally” has one very specific job. That’s all it does. It’s a one-trick pony, and no other word will do the trick.
But here’s an inconvenient truth that your Curmudgeon will not enjoy sharing: that last little paragraph isn’t true.
I’m among those who get crazy when someone uses the word “literally” merely for emphasis. We sticklers maintain the commonly held misconception that “literally” can only mean actually, in fact, no exaggeration; the words mean what they mean. So to us, the statement “my head literally exploded” is nonsense, unless it’s said by someone with an exploded head.
But tragically, according to an explanation on merriam-webster.com, “The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769.”
So there we go. There’s no denying it. Statements like “I literally peed” are perfectly kosher, no matter how much it pisses us off.
But hold on. I’m not done with this argument just yet. (Did you think I’d give up that easily?) Using “literally” to mean not literally may have historical legitimacy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not stupid. That's right: in this rare case, I’m saying that a traditional definition is 100% wrong. As luck would have it, I have a solution to this considerable dilemma.
Whenever I bemoan the misuse of our English language, some whippersnapper smugly informs me that, “language is always evolving.” They use that lofty sounding justification even in defense of linguistic atrocities like “should of,” “on accident,” “expecially,” “expresso,” “irregardless,” “I could care less,” “your nice,” and the ridiculous use of single letters, numbers, and symbols in place of actual English words (e.g. “4 u,” “I’ll b there,” “CU@8”). And I guess they’d say that’s there right. I happen to disagree; mistakes and improvements are two very different things.
But since language is ever evolving, here’s what I propose: Let’s evolve “literally” into a word that means . . . literally. Wouldn’t that be a kick? Go with me on this. Here’s my thought: we already have several ways of saying things hyperbolically:
“I nearly fainted.”
“I practically fainted.”
“I could have fainted.”
“I just about fainted.”
Even “I fainted” could be taken either as fact or hyperbole, prompting the odd question, “Wait. You mean fainted fainted?”
But how do you communicate that you really fainted? Don’t we all deserve a word for that? I hereby nominate “literally.” If we limit its use to statements meant to be taken literally, voilà! Now we all know what’s being said. We relieve the poor, confused word of its current double duty (having to mean both its definition and its opposite), and give it the one job to which it’s best suited: literally meaning literally. I just exhaled for the first time since starting this piece.
How I’d love to never again hear, “I am literally starving,” “He was literally twenty feet tall,” “My hands are literally made of ice,” “There’s literally no one in town,” or “I am literally dead” (unless the speaker is a ghost).
A world in which people never say “literally” unless they mean literally? Now that’s the kind of linguistic evolution I can live with. It’ll never happen of course, but a curmudgeon can dream, can’t he? I mean, not literally dream. But . . . well . . . you know what I mean.