Saturday, June 12, 2010

Posted by Laurel Garver on Saturday, June 12, 2010 17 comments
Anyone else hate the word "literally"? I avoid using it at all, it makes me that crazy. Would you believe venerated writes including Austen, Twain, Alcott and Fitzgerald have all misused the word--treating it as if it meant "figuratively"? Check out THIS post from Slate magazine for the skinny on "literally" and how writers for centuries have decried its use as a contranym (think "cleave," which means to cut in half as well as to cling).

What are your thoughts? Should the term be used only to mean "by the letter"? Should writers avoid the word entirely as overused and cliche? Is this just another example of fluidity of language--and "literally" should now be seen as an intensifier that functions like "really"?

17 comments:

  1. Oh, Laurel, it is a MAJOR pet peeve of mine when people misuse 'literally'. *cringe* It brings about violent tendencies in me. I've done rant posts on this word.
    I find it supremely annoying when people [over]use it, often incorrectly. Recently (spring) there was a national TV commercial airing for Dodge Caravan which said, and I quote: "literally giving birth to all other mini-vans"...dude. I'd literally like to see that non-mammal Caravan squeeze a Ford Aerostar out its vaj. Would it be covered in motor oil and other fluids?

    The word should be used ONLY to mean "by the letter", because that IS WHAT IT MEANS. And even then, it should be used sparingly, when no other word would do.

    I'm feel you, sister. Amen.

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  2. I rarely use the word in everyday conversation or in my writing, so I rarely notice it or think about it. Word choice is important to me, though, so seeing any word misused tends to catch my attention. That said, English is a fluid, fast-moving language, so change is a fact.

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  3. I use it as a joke with my teenager. I'll say (all flippant)"Like,literally, you know!?!" and we both crack up. I think I got if from SNL, but maybe from somewhere else. It cracks me up.

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  4. Dude, I'm definitely in the "by the letter" camp :D

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  5. "Literally" is in the same category as air quotes; I never use them. Too cliche, too dated!

    Hope you're having a wonderful weekend!

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  6. *raises hand guiltily* I have definitely misused this word before, though not often. But I do agree that it should only be used to mean "by the letter."

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  7. I think overused myself, but if thrown in at the right place I might forgive. ;) I try to avoid things like that however on occasion my characters genuinely like cliches.

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  8. I read a fantasy novel some years back (a bestselling one, in fact), in which the author used "verily" when he should have used "literally."

    Verily? Really? Did you really just bring my reading to a screeching halt so that I could marvel over your epic misuse of that word? I literally cringed when I read that. *cough*

    But he shouldn't have bothered using it at all, because it's not a very good word to use in fiction, unless it's in someone's dialogue. IMHO, anyway.

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  9. Lola: your van advertising example is hilarious! Glad to know I'm not alone in despising the word.:-)

    Sarahjayne: what caught me short in the Slate article was the fact that "really" once meant something close to literally. Fluidity is what has made English such a powerful language; sadly this means the disturbing contranym may be around for good. Ugh.

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  10. Tess: mocking it is fair game. Amen!

    Zoe: me, too.

    Nicole: I can't tell you how many times I've read someone saying "quote, unquote" in YA, mostly books published around 1999-2003. A dying trend, I hope.

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  11. Sandy: It's misused pervasively in TV, ads, films, books. The Slate article hints that this word's meaning may have to include the contranym sometime soon, little as I may like it. It's just how our language functions.

    T.Anne: Great point. In dialogue, it can be just the thing to communicate a person's proneness to stupid exaggerations. Same as using cliches shows a character doesn't have original ideas.

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  12. Simon: the trick with fantasy is that it tries to sound historical and in barely-literate cultures, "literally" is a meaningless word. Know what I'm saying? I imagine the author thought verily (truly, perhaps meant as "a true allegory" or a "true comparison") sounded more historically accurate, even if it wasn't quite right.

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  13. That article was so interesting. I love that writers have been playing with the word for so long. This might not be a popular thing to say, but maybe we shouldn't worry about it. Words are just words. Their meanings are going to evolve as years pass. I think that's okay.

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  14. If a language stops changing, it starts dying. That said, this one makes me cringe, too. That and using unconsciously instead of subconsciously. Oh, and there are the pernicious ly words! LOL

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  15. Just last night I was watching a movie where one of the characters kept saying literally at all the wrong times. Other characters kept suggesting to him that he need to look up the meaning of the word. I wish I could remember what movie is was.

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  16. I use literally in every day conversation, but not really in writing. Ironically.

    Also: I've now grown afraid of using the term irony because I'm never really sure I'm using it correctly. Sigh.

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  17. Natalie: I thought so, too. I asked my lexicographer (dictionary definer) friend about this and she said, yes, the dictionary does not prescribe but describe how words are used. The contranym usage is so pervasive we should expect to see it in dictionaries.

    Victoria: I think we have Jung to blame for that misuse. His concept of "the collective unconscious"--feelings shared by all peoples--are drives Freud would call the subconscious. Scholarly jargon almost always filters into popular use in a very mixed-up way.

    Southpaw: funny! If you remember what it is, I'd love to know.

    JEM: I found this helpful distiction between irony and sarcasm:
    irony is where “the literal meaning is opposite to the intended”; and sarcasm is “aggressive humor that pokes fun ...”.

    I think I've been misusing the term "sarcasm." My MCs sense of humor and voice is often ironic--when someone's mean, she's likely to say or think "Nice".

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