I have always thought of the word 'literally' as someone else's problem. Then, suddenly, it arrived: My summer of Literally. A recent family vacation revealed my brother as one of the worst offenders. He likes to couple ‘literally’ with the phrase… 'on the planet,' as in, “You are literally the best sister on the planet.” (Or rather, you were.) Other literally fans (is it the heat?): my lesbian best friend, my rich best friend, my yoga best friend—she’s the one it seems rudest to complain about since last weekend we went to Wanderlust together, and I spent half the time in a sobbing rage and the other half crawling around on a motel floor looking for an earring. But one of us used the word 'literally' approximately 18 times over the course of three days, and it was not I.
Before we get started, if you feel the impulse to go look up the meaning of 'literally,' please, be my guest. And if you suspect you use the word a lot, get one of those big dictionaries. Now hit yourself with it, really hard. Okay. Thanks. Here are five theories as to why 'literally' is the word of these times.
1. People use 'literally' because they're always lying and they think 'literally' makes their bullshit sound better. Let's say your plane gets in an hour late. And afterward you just sit in the airport parking lot going, "Fuck I don't want to go home, my head is going to explode." And then you go have two drinks, and then you go home. You would never say to the person waiting for you, "Oh, I landed and I was like, "God, I just can't fucking deal." So you say, "We literally sat on the tarmac [no one as burdened/important as you sits on a mere runway] for two hours." Even though you sat there for maybe 20 minutes. When I hear 'literally' in the context of an excuse "The 405 was literally a parking lot," "They literally do not have any light bulbs anywhere in Seattle right now," I know what I'm hearing is a lie. A good excuse does not need 'literally' appended. A good excuse is naturally born from the machinery of a truly troublesome situation. 'Literally' is trotted out to imply mayhem and disorder when almost certainly none occurred.
2. People use 'literally' because they feel like all their stories have to be exciting. "I literally had to sprint to my class." Okay, who gives a fuck? "I literally ate the whole hamburger." Again, unmoved. Here's one you hear a lot: "Oh my God, my best friend's apartment is literally right across the street from…" …whatever. Where you live or work, your gym, your "best" friend's house. How am I supposed to respond to that? Is the idea that I should meet this friend due to our proximity? Do we need to celebrate this enormous coincidence? Do you think if I stood in my living room and looked through a pair of binoculars and your “best friend” were naked and bent over I could literally see his asshole?
Here’s the worst example from this category: "I literally just got home." Want to hear something that will blow your mind? I believe that you returned to your place of residence just before I got here. Strangely, I myself often get back to my place right before people come over too, and yes, it's crazy shit, but breathe with me here, and let's just sail right past 'literally' when describing this miraculous event of your having just returned home only to find me right behind you. In same vein, "We literally just got back from vacation today," "We literally got back from vacation last week." (What? Last week? How can this be?) "I literally was in Paris two years ago." (I believe what you mean to say is, "I was in Paris two years ago.")
I think people think that the word 'literally' gives their speech or stories a boost of adrenaline. You want to thrill me? Give me a nice, unadorned fact. Tell me something true. I will die of pleasure.
3. The ubiquity of 'literally' has something to do with Facebook updates and our secret guilt about what bullshit they often are. Let's return to the sprinting to class example. Unless your class is 50 feet away, you didn't literally sprint to it. You jogged ten feet and realized, wow, I'm totally sprinting to class, and almost immediately it dawned on you how hilarious your 598 Facebook friends would find this. So you stopped sprinting, and then you very likely performed a speech act: "I literally sprinted to class," which, as you wrote your subsequent Status Update, made you forget that nothing had actually happened.
4. "I was literally so mad at her." This is not a theory. This is simply the worst usage of the word I've ever heard.
5. 'Literally' is a way to call attention to rare moments of non-irony. Recently, a friend and I were going to Buffalo Exchange to try to sell some of her used clothes, and she said, "This shit I am trying to offload on these people? I literally got it at a thrift store in 1994," and then she said (as everyone who uses 'literally' around me does): "Sorry.” Feeling magnanimous, trying to brush off the annoyance at being apologized to by someone who should instead have been self-policing, I said, "Well, it's okay, because you did get the stuff at a thrift store in 1994 and you're trying to say it's not a joke, like if I said, 'My ex-boyfriend's grandmother is literally 110,' and I'm not trying to make a joke about how old she is, she really is 110." (I would never use the word 'literally' in that context. I was trying to be nice.) Then she said, "But, I mean, I didn't get this stuff at a thrift store in 1994." I gave my outrage a minute to subside, and I thought about how we make lots of jokes that sound like this: "My entire family spent their lives being chased by Cossacks," or, "My mother should be in a mental institution" or, "She has more shoes than Imelda Marcos." (Painful, but people not only say stuff like this, they write it down.) I don't know exactly when we all decided that every single joke we made would lean on hyperbole or whose fault it is. It could be David Sedaris’ (his jokes are more cutting, exacting, observational, but the style?), or it could be Carrie Bradshaw’s (I'm generally a supporter, but let's face it, she and that giant flower have a lot to answer for). At any rate, the appearance of 'literally' at these times is to signal that for once we're not exaggerating. That we're being real. Of course we have no idea how to be real, but some part of our brain obviously yearns for it, and trots out the word 'literally,' a tic, a crutch, a cry for help.
Related: How To Bully Children and Don't Say That, Say This!
Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl, which are for teens but adults can read on the beach. She lives in Nevada City, CA. Photo by Paul Parry, founder of The Literally Project, used with permission.