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Against the Figurative Use of the Word Literally

By on Nov 5, 2013 in All, Writing | 14 comments

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literally Lyra literally sitting

This was drawn by Elder-Misanthrope

Recently went to the effort to defend figurative use of the word “literally” on their Hot Word blog. Before we get into the details, just a quick reminder so you’re up to speed:

– adj. What actually happened.Synonyms: Actually. Antonyms: figuratively, metaphorically. Usage: I was literally rolling on the floor laughing.

This comic from the Oatmeal explains the controversy nicely.

literally pissed myself the Oatmeal

See the full comic on The Oatmeal


So you see, many people are only pretending to “literally piss our selves laughing” while those of us who’ve actually pissed ourselves, sadly, have no way to express our mirth.

Inigo Montoya Princess Bride Gif I do not think it means what you think it means

OK, now that everyone is clear what we’re discussing with what is literally my biggest pet peeve, back to the Hot Word. This thoroughly awful post really calls into question the authority behind’s blog, and not only because it is wrong. Let’s take it point by point.

The article begins by pointing out that the word “literally” has only been around with its current definition since 1689 (long enough for me), and that a mere two hundred years later notable fellows like Chaz Dickens were using it improperly. Fair enough. But just because a smart guy misuses a word doesn’t mean we all should.

The article goes on to say,

More recently, the word definitely has begun fluctuating in meaning. Jezebel published an article in June entitled, ‘Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.’


It’s utterly perplexing to me that the author of this post fails to recognize that the Jezebel writer is using the time-honored tradition of sarcasm. The word “definitely” still means what it always meant, the Jezebel writer is just expecting her audience to be a little more sophisticated than the readers of, say,

fire animated gif

“Now seems like a good time to have a friendly grammar debate.”

But sure, I’ll grant you that words sometimes shift meaning over time. A better example would be the words “flammable” and “inflammable,” which pretty much mean the same thing (and the opposite), because, while the root of “inflammable” is “inflame,” it sounds a little like the “in” at the front is the prefix meaning “not.” So that makes sense. When it comes to things that will literally set you on fire, we want our warning labels to be clear.

Words adapt; they change meaning over time. But the article goes on to state that the reason we complain about the misuse of “literally” is because we were taught the meaning in school, so it gives even the most illiterate turds among us a chance to feel like grammar snobs for a day:

The contradiction of literally is easy to explain to a large audience, easier than why dictionary editors hem and haw over the use of the word “etc.” or how adverbial phrases are punctuated. This type of simplistic gripe satisfies the need to feel smarter than someone else without thinking too deeply about how language operates.
Um, no.
But, hey, way to give the old “fuck you” to the readers of your site.
XKCD on literally

Every post I write is just an excuse to share an XKCD comic

How about some real talk on “how language operates.” Language changes because words become more or less useful. We didn’t need the phrase “hanging chad” until Americans started screwing up our ballot sheets, and now it’s in the dictionary. Conversely, what used to be a trolley is, these days, a fancy bus. It makes sense that the word has evolved in meaning because very few cities still have local train systems. As the word became less useful, the traditional meaning fell out of favor. But what do we call a fancy bus that is styled like a train car? “Trolley” seems perfectly reasonable.
trolley bus is now a trolley

Old school trolleys are spinning in their graves at this demon-bastard trackless monstrosity. Or they would be, if they had wheels to spin.

So, as a word becomes less useful, its definition changes. But is that the case with literally? Take this example: “I hate your momma so much I literally danced on her grave.” Now, if I really did twerk on your momma’s grave, how can I let you know that I mean I really and truly did this, besides providing photographic evidence? Right now the most effective way to convey this in the English language is to add the word “literally.” To allow the word to mean “figuratively” is to take meaning away from the English language. Unlike the trolley, we still need this word to impart meaning, because how otherwise can I express how much I hate your momma?
Worse, because “figuratively” means the exact opposite of “literally,” to misuse it in this way makes the word entirely useless. Why would you bother even adding the word to a sentence, if the thing you’re describing didn’t actually happen? There’s no reason, it’s just an extra, redundant word. Thus when it is misused, it’s like the person is stomping on the word over and over, trying to (figuratively) stomp out the sad little embers of its life. And for those of us who like having literally in our lexicon, it’s painful to see you bitch slapping it over and over.

The article concludes,

I’d argue that when juxtaposed with seemingly outrageous but accurate statements, the original meaning becomes more effective exactly because it can also mean “figuratively,” and a listener must pause to determine which meaning the speaker intends.
Naturally, why give a word one meaning, when we can let it mean its opposite too? We’ve returned to second grade, when every day is Opposite day! Please know,, that when I say the article you’ve written is a weak attempt to defend your own ignorance, what I really mean is it’s a strong attempt to defend your brilliance. I’m sure that doesn’t muddle my meaning at all.

Against the Figurative Use of the Word Literally

by Karma time to read: 4 min