Figuratively Literal

Every once in a while a journalist contacts me to consult about one of the subjects about which I‘ve written. The latest query was from a columnist at a major newspaper wanting my opinion about current uses of the word “literally” in contexts where the speaker or writer is being figurative.

Coincidentally (not “ironically”) Tom sent out my entry on the subject in the e-mail calendar shortly after I was doing a bit of research on the subject in mid-June.

I won’t name the journalist since he hasn’t actually published anything about it, but I thought I’d share with you some of what I dug up from one week’s worth of news.

Professional writers usually know enough to use “literally” literally, often creating clever headlines using it. Here‘s an example:
Literally Unbelievable: When satire happens to dense people
—Tatin Yang in the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Many are fond of using the phrase “figuratively and literally”:
Heading out Saturday into North Point Creek on her uncle's Kawasaki, she was still, literally and figuratively, getting her feet wet.
—Nick Madigan in The Baltimore Sun

Politicians are especially prone to misuse the word, but Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz—chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee—evidently meant meant “literally” literally in her rather intemperate remarks about Republicans when speaking to the Christian Science Monitor:
Among other statements, Schultz said Republican attempts to reduce the deficit would kill seniors. She made it plain she was not speaking figuratively. She said ”this plan would literally be a death trap for seniors.”
—Quoted in the Greeley Gazette

But she was less cautious in another use of the word:
Wasserman Schultz, who’s also a Florida congresswoman, said in a weekend interview that Republicans “literally” wish to revive Jim Crow laws, in the form of new voter restrictions. Republicans pounced, and she subsequently issued a statement regretting her choice of language.
The Hill

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether a person really intends to use the word literally, or is just exaggerating. Here’s an example by Senator John McCain:
“We have terribly out-of-control costs for literally every weapons system we've acquired,” McCain said.
ABC News/Politics

A lawyer said of the conflagration in which three firefighters were killed
It was literally hell up there.
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Here’s one from a media reviewer:
After literally crucifying the series premiere of LOVE BITES last week, I felt that this LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE-type anthology series deserved a second chance.
—Carl Cortez, Assignment X

Did his golfing partner really spot Ken Venturi huffing a debilitating substance at the U.S. Open?
“Because he literally, from the back nine in the first round, was on fumes. It was incredible, the performance he put forth under those circumstances.”
—Quoted by Barry Svrluga in The Washington Post

A CNN viewer commented, in reaction to the near-collapse of Newt Gingrich’s Presidential campaign:
Oh, too bad. This season’s presidential contenders are literally falling apart at the seams.

Randy Dockendorf in the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan implied that a Pilates instructor’s client gave her a hotseat:
Stef’s reward was literally one of the hottest tickets in town—a seat at the double-taping of talk show icon Oprah Winfrey’s next-to-last shows at the United Center.

“Deluge” is most often used figuratively, but this writer, while doing just that, suggested the opposite: a literal flood:
I have literally been deluged with information about consumer energy management habits related to the smart grid over the past three weeks.
—Heather Clancy on ZDNet

This writer used it to mean “virtually,” a common error. He defied a reader who called him on it as you will see if you scroll down the page:
Recently HP’s CEO Leo Apotheker said that they were open to the idea of licensing WebOS. And I literally heard the entire internet say, “It’s about time.”
—Jeff Hollaway, The Gadgeteer

I love this one, which implies miraculous powers of resurrection:
You take a volunteer that you literally worked to death in 90-degree weather for 12 hours, and at the end of the day they say, “Can I do this again?” That's just humbling, quite honestly.
—Doug Snyder, President of Special Olympics Illinois, on Pantagraph.com

This one conjures up amusing visions:
Goodrich Park is adjacent to downtown Whitehall and is literally a hop, skip and jump to Montague.
—Amy VanLoon quoted on mlive.com

Here’s an odd use that is literal and figurative at the same time:
“I mean, it literally sounded like a bomb went off.”

Here's “literally” surrounded oxymoronically by two “like‘s”:
“It was going from the garage and then that small little hole thing it was popping out of there already it looked like the house literally like the whole thing was on fire," said Josie Almosaar.”
—Quoted on KHON2.com

Here’s another example of unintentionally undercutting the word’s meaning:
“He was literally kind of shaking,” Travis said.
—Corey Clark, Tallahassee.com (a site which requires you to log in, so I’m not linking to it)

Very often, it‘s used as a synonym for “actually” when no figure of speech is involved:
“We literally just signed the documents this evening,” Jon Pritchett, the group's CEO and operating partner, said Friday night.
—Quoted in the Quad City Times

1 comment:

Paul Brians said...

The article about “literally” in the Boston Globe by Christopher Muther finally appeared on July 19, 2011.

See “Literally the most misused word."

He didn't use the references I cited in my blog post, but he did briefly quote the book.