“Literal” Failure: This is Why the English Language Can’t Have Nice Things

“Literal” Failure: This is Why the English Language Can’t Have Nice Things

I’m not a language snob. New words are great, old words can die, and sometimes the meaning of words changes over time. That’s how it works, and in general the way that American English (as opposed to, say, French French) has embraced those changes is what’s made it so large and dynamic. But there’s this one word that English speakers are trampling into the ground (not literally, figuratively), and it’s killing me (again, not literally).

“Literal” is an elegant, precise, very useful word. As exemplified by the last sentence in the paragraph above, metaphors abound in everyday speech and writing, and every once in a while, it’s amusing or important to clarify that one is using a phrase that is commonly understood figuratively, but that one does not mean it in a figurative sense. This is why the language gods gave us “literal.”

Say that all my hopes for the future rested (figuratively) on the data stored on a memory card. Oops! I drop it, and now you and your buddies run past and step on it until it’s broken. You’ve now literally trampled my hopes into the ground. Thanks, assholes.

And let’s talk about your habit of blowing second-hand smoke in my face. Insofar as you’re significantly increasing, over time, my likelihood of developing a deadly lung cancer, you are literally killing me. Sometimes I need to really, actually, truly, without metaphor mean what I say, and that’s when I drop the “literal” card. Figuratively.

But untold millions of English speakers are under the erroneous impression that “literally” means “seriously” or “I’m not kidding.” For example:

That was literally the best movie I’ve ever seen.

I have literally never been angrier.

I am literally in love with my amazing girlfriend.

Unless the two of you are hanging out inside the “O” in a Robert Indiana sculpture, that is not actually what you mean. But people misuse “literally” in this manner again, and again, and again, every day, and it’s slowly driving a stake into the heart (figuratively) of a beautiful, useful word.

There are so many other perfectly appropriate words to use in this scenario! Consider:

That was absolutely the best movie I’ve ever seen.

I am not fucking with you when I say that I have never been angrier.

I am deliriously in love with my amazing girlfriend.

See how much better that sounds? And all those formulations leave “literally” on the shelf (figuratively), waiting for a moment of glory such as when you later need to say that your girlfriend literally envelops you with her love. That’s only TMI if you’re using the word “literally” correctly.

America, spill your love wantonly about—literally—but save a good word for when you need it. For when you actually, seriously, truly need it.

Jay Gabler