I think that literally may be my favourite word. Literally. Or figuratively. Or literally. I’m not exactly sure.
I’m not a big fan of the word literally. By which I don’t mean that I’m literally not a big fan, just I’m not fond of using the word. It doesn’t come out of my mouth much. I don’t feel as though it serves much of a purpose. It doesn’t feel nice in my mouth. It doesn’t have a particularly good sound.
But the word is beautiful for two reasons.
First, it is an excellent example of the evolution of the human language — a word that is taking a step in its evolution of meaning through my very own generation; where people my age cling vigorously to the old meaning, even as the new meaning becomes more common amongst other people my own age.
Second, bloggers go on hilarious rants.
You’re using the word wrong, these rants say. You said “my head literally exploded”, but it didn’t explode. That’s not what literally means.
That’s what they say. And I laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
Why? Because literally literally means written down, as in, that’s the original (literal) meaning of the word. So when our imaginary blogger says that “my head literally exploded” requires that a head has exploded, they are using the word literal figuratively, and complaining about a further figurative jump in the use of literal by others.
That the meaning of literal that we are most used to is a figurative literal is a nice little mind maze. I like it.
But it gets funnier.
Because by writing down the words “my head exploded”, it means that the person’s head literally exploded. Because it’s written down – that’s the literal literal, not the figurative literal, of course. So really, your angry blogger who thinks that the person using the figurative literal in error actually redeems the sentence through the act of typing, making it a valid figuratively literal use of the word literal in a non-figurative (ie, figuratively literal) manner.
And then, beyond all this, your angry blogger is simply missing that this is one of the most common evolutions in language — the increased emphasis. Once you have an expression like “my head exploded”, it’s hard to go up, make it bigger. But then something happens that needs more emphasis than the last thing. What do you do? What do you say?
You need to modify your sentence.
While some of us might reinforce the sentence by saying “my head exploded like it was scenery in Wrath of the Titans”, others might suggest that such sentences simply don’t roll off the tongue.
But what can one say to make the sentence hold more impact?
How about take a word, whose meaning is the opposite of figurative, and use it in a figurative manner. So they take our figurative literal and make it into a figurative figurative literal.
Is it any wonder?
I love this word. Literally.