The Literal Truth of Literally: Wherein I make another hopeless plea to let language be..

I have spoken before about those who want to shut language down, my frustration with their dictates and fears over the prevalence of this destructive, sneering attitude; you may not recall, as I was literally ignored by the entire blog-o-sphere. And yet despite that, here I am, still daft enough to speak up again.

Believe me, I understand as much as the next word groupie, the teeth-gritting, nail-scraping, nerve-shredding effect of misuse, but misuse is often a matter of common use. What is common in America, no matter how many times I re-watch Friends, can still feel irritatingly uncommon in Scotland. Don’t write me, unless you are writing, me, 0_0 I don’t actually rant at Americans about this though. I quietly mutter and repress like all well-raised individuals.


Now sometimes of course words are just plain misused and it means the person isn’t saying that they think they are saying. I’d just say – have you never used the wrong word? And known even as you were spitting it out it was wrong? Don’t assume someone is stupid all the time, cause they were stupid one time.

But perhaps the thing I find most damning –  I’ll debate if that is quite the right word while we talk –  is how much of this comes back to the same words. Irritations are often about repetition, I’ll grant you, and mimicry is how we learn to communicate so its not totally without belief that all the big wide interwebs could be being irked by exactly the same words.. not totally, so perhaps not damning, but certainly suspicious.

Common complaint  #1: Its absolutely absolute.

This concerns words which denote an absolute state – complete, absolute, equal, perfect and unique. Oh and wrong..

The simple answer to this is we understand with absolute clarity what Stuart is saying. More importantly he is introducing nuance and degrees. This is vital for us to move forward, to progress, not merely in language but in life. To shade in all the layers and aspects of any concept, both in terms of the greater context but also in terms of the actual word. Only by understanding how it might be used, in degrees, in combinations, in purity, can we give it a meaning beyond the one dimensional and fully realise it. This turns it into a tool not just to express in blunt and incomplete terms what is, but to shape what might be with scalpel like precision.

 All generalisations are false, including this one ~ Mark Twain

We’re always in speech going to misuse. We’re processing a huge amount of information, usually doing at least one other thing at the same time, thinking, walking, eating, reading, eyeing up the diet coke man.. trying to answer coherently, effectively, kindly, engagingly, and so many more ly’s I can’t even think of mentioning for fear the Adverb Activists shut me down.. We have less than a few micro-seconds on average to grab an answer and use it to convey all we felt, saw, need, from the situation we’re in and the one we were in.

And as you know, in my observation, Effect always triumphs.

Which leads on to…

Common complaint #2: You are literally using literally, literally.

I mean I can’t guarantee you are, but I’d wager less than 0.00001% of people have ever used it to mean figuratively. Language is a cumulative effect; one built of many different pieces all functioning in their own often contradictory way. And those functions speak more to usage than they do to the dictionary definitions.

I recently saw a wee spat over the word ‘torrid’. The phrase was a torrid pavement and the complainer wondered aloud what I was wondering in my well-raised repressed head: how the hell is a pavement torrid?

Turns out torrid first and foremost means – hot and dry. The sahara is torrid. The pavements in Scotland are never torrid. You have to go to the third meaning to get to the usage that most of us immediately jump to, some of us – I’ll hold up my hand – didn’t even know it had other meanings.

Most of us use the word wrestling to mean struggling more than we do to refer to men in tight shiny spandex. Is it still metaphorical if it is the primary usage? Is it still metaphorical if it is in the dictionary list of meanings? Certainly if I were to put literally before it, a word that means ‘true to the actual meaning’, am I not doing this? Literal also has several definitions. One of which is ‘true to fact’. Can it not be true to fact that I am wrestling with myself?


But beyond that, even if we accept that literally is modifying something we would consider to be a figure of speech, are we not still applying it in a literal fashion? Am I not saying by putting literally before ‘ you’re killing me’ do not take this figuratively? By putting literally before my figure of speech I am asking you to take my hyperbolic self-expression seriously, as seriously as if it were literal. Is that not precisely why we choose literally as an intensifier?

I say choose… Once upon a time, some folk with an intriguing grasp of language and understanding of the power of contrast chose this word. Now we’re in habit mode. I would still argue that nine times out of ten it’s not a case of misuse as much as overuse. Its effect has become diluted and it’s moved into the irritation zone.

Common Complaint #3: Different strokes for different folks..

Those who refuse to allow that their perception is not the definitive perception.

‘Random is abused to mean quirky, unexpected, or strange, but it actually means “made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision”. In fact, just because something is strange does not mean that it happens without rhyme or reason.’  ~ Some random dude on the internet.

What he doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge, or perhaps stuck in his own perspective, doesn’t see is that random may be exactly what it seems to the observer. Since they cannot perceive the method behind the choosing, it appears to them to be random.

Perspective is all. It’s what informs, or forms might be the better word, our judgement, which is a word that feels, not misused, but narrowed. Reduced. One of the wonderful things about the English Language is how flexible a word is, how even the oxford dictionary in all its bare dry preciseness still needs an essay to explain table. And even still I know it’s evolving. I really did know a guy who swore he got tabled every night.

Which takes us to..

Common Complaint #4: In the beginning..

Decimate means to destroy.

Ask any dictionary. They will also tell you that it arose from the Roman practice of killing one in every ten men to discourage and punish mutinous legions.

Uninterested used to mean disinterested and disinterested used to mean uninterested. Torrid used to mean hot and dry, and now I am wondering about all those torrid romances (is dry what you want in any romance?)

Ultimate began life meaning the last, or the last word. The end of ends, the last word in automobiles Bob, the engine design that will define all engines from here on in.. And you wonder how the evolution of the word to ‘the very best’ occurred?

Etymology is wonderful. I love it. But I checked – repeatedly and quite literally (though I am not tattooed in plaid) – and nowhere does it mean: a stick to beat upon the brow of society how very very clever you are. You can actually tell someone an interesting etymological fact without telling them they are wrong.. really, you can.. Sneers are optional.

Poets, the unacknowledged legislators of the world,  were the sinners, we merely their disciples. Poets sought enlightenment, still do, through words, because words more than anything else, can define, illuminate, discover and uncover. They use words to make us stop and look anew, and we, we copy. And we copy poorly. Because most of us, we’re not poets, we’re not even close. We simply don’t have the same judgement, we just like the effect. So we copy hoping that a little magic will rub off on us..

From our perspective we do the best we can. From my perspective every time a word evolves it’s a reflection of someone making an impact, of changing the way we look, perhaps even what we see. Because if it didn’t speak to us, help us connect to the world around us, it would’ve simply faded away.



3 thoughts on “The Literal Truth of Literally: Wherein I make another hopeless plea to let language be..

  1. Scrolling through my wordpress ‘reader’ after perusing your piece I came across this ‘gem’.

    “Diopside is the environmentalist stone of our great mother Earth.This lovely green stone brings through the green ray, and will connect you energetically with the heartbeat of the planet…”

    So, I follow some totally random sites but that sentence literally annoys me.


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