Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
73

Literally The Worst Word On The Planet

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.

73 Comments / Post A Comment

Ledrew (#654)

Nice. But while we're all ranting: "it was not I."??

hershmire (#233,671)

@Ledrew Predicate nominative.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Ledrew and to be nit-picky: "Want to here something that will blow you mind?" ??

Evan Hughes (#11,164)

@Ledrew "It was not I" is correct, though rarely used, and I commend the writer. My parents taught me to say "This is he" on the phone—often questioned but also correct.

ejcsanfran (#489)

@Evan Hughes: I KNOW, RITE? "This is him" is like nails on a blackboard to me.

Faintly Macabre (#235,741)

@Ledrew Love it's not I who didn't try hard enough, hard enough [to use correct grammar]

klemay (#18,251)

@Evan Hughes Why are we so willing to defend something as "correct" when it sounds strange and unnatural to most native speakers? Language changes, and I think it's changing in the "it was not me" direction. I'm literally okay with that. (Bad pun! Sorry!)

Evan Hughes (#11,164)

@klemay I have thought about this often and I don't have a better answer than "I'm an incurable prescriptivist, which may mean I'm an elitist." I just think if we let the most common usage rule, then we actually have a language without rules, and that's inconvenient and chaotic.

klemay (#18,251)

@Evan Hughes We already have an inconvenient and chaotic system, because we can almost never agree on what's correct. However, I can definitely see the appeal of having a set of rules to follow.

Evan Hughes (#11,164)

@klemay I agree that generally speaking we have chaos. I just try to do my best to resist further entropy. But I don't generally correct people for kicks. (You'll notice I corrected a correcter, so I was just sticking up for the writer.) I also believe some rules are silly, so I don't totally observe by my own philosophy. For instance I split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and don't universally observe who/whom because "whom do you love?" just sounds dumb.

hoo:ha (#226,200)

@klemay In the spirit of pedantry I'd like to point out… that's not actually a pun. :)

Mr. B (#10,093)

ROGER DUPREE: Messers Bialystok and Bloom, I presume. Ha-ha-ha! Pardon the pun.

BLOOM: What pun?

BIALYSTOK: Shut up! He thinks he's witty.

kamakiri (#202,641)

There are certain things in the English language that you simply have to give up on. When you read even century-old English, you come across words used in such strange ways that if you aren't used to reading Brontë, for example, will seem completely wrong, like the use of the word "perfect." "Perfect" didn't used to mean "Flawless" or "Error-free" as we use it now; it used to mean something like "incredible" as in "a perfect shower of musket-shot." And the word "must" and "should" ("I should be most obliged, sir") are used completely differently today. Who's to say whether they're being used correctly?

One usage which I've given up struggling against is the use of the word "none." None, is, of course, a contraction of not one, or even no one, so if you said "Not one were injured" it would sound strange. But "None were injured" sounds perfectly normal, whereas nowadays "None was injured" just sounds plain wrong — but it isn't. It's like hearing "He's no better at it than I" sounds weird, until you realize that it's short for "He's no better at it than I am," not "He's no better at it than me am."

Like the egregious misuse of "you and I" in songs: "This love was meant for you and I" blah blah blah. It was meant for I, was it? Or was it meant for me?

But there must come an end to NITTY nitpicking. Some things, you just have to give up on, or you end up with sentences like "This is something up with which I shall not put." Hey, it's the CORRECT way to say it, but you'd be condemned if you actually said or wrote it.

I've given up on a lot of things (though I don't use them myself) like the ultra-common Americanism "Where's the keys?" (I don't think the Canucks or the Brits do that too much) and, yes, even though I know it's wrong, I say "None of them were to blame," knowing that 95 percent of English speakers would have no idea that that was wrong.

A pet peeve I have is the phrase "short-lived" being pronounced as "short-livvved" instead of the correct "short-lyved" as in "life" "lived." If you look at it logically, it means having a short life, not having a short live. But *sigh* only about 0.000001% of people know that, and about 0.00000000001% of people would care anyway.

So sometimes — not ALL the time, but sometimes — you just have to go with the flow. I literally use "literally" EXACTLY in the mistaken manner the author scolds — but to me it's just become another meaningless expression that has become stuck in modern vernacular, and as long as my fellow grammar Nazis don't object, we might as well (may as well?) let it be.

But one thing (two things?) that will NEVER get under my radar are its and it's. Somehow, that NEVER FAILS to infuriate me. Its really a question of it's misuse, but as long as it doesn't get to the level of "Great Hot Dog's" I'm jiggy with it.

GiovanniGF (#224)

I had a boss who would start every sentence with "frankly," which made you feel that he was not being frank at all.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@GiovanniGF One of my bosses always prefaces things with, "It's funny," or "You know, it's funny…" and I always think that it isn't funny, maybe odd or peculiar or notable. I'm sure I say some cliche annoying things sometimes though.

I had a boos that would say, "Again," before almost everything. I counted something like twelve times in one meeting. It made me feel that he was repeating himself too much.

boss*

But also, boos to the bosses.

Faintly Macabre (#235,741)

@GiovanniGF My roommate freshman year of college started almost all of her sentences with "Basically" or "It was basically." No matter what she was talking about. I have many conversational tics, but at least I vary them!

BadUncle (#153)

I literally replace "literally" with "gutterally." It's more impactful, scalable and empowerable.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@BadUncle I like to say gutterally gutturally.

BadUncle (#153)

@petejayhawk Speak from the diaphragm. Or the contraceptive sponge.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

"Replace your "literally"s with different adverbs."

Faintly Macabre (#235,741)

@whizz_dumb srsly.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Moving Forward, I really hope that we can look upon this as a teachable moment and refrain from using such turns-of-phrase.

Dave Bry (#422)

I agree with the main point: that it is the worst word of our times. ("Epic" is maybe catching up. But I'm not sure it has the legs.) But I have been noticing and infuriated by the over-and-misuse of "literally" for far longer than Facebook has been in existence. For well more than ten years now, people—many, many, many people, so so many people—have been using the word simply as an amplifier. It's basically come to mean "very."

BadUncle (#153)

@Dave Bry How can you, Dave Bry, use the word "amplifier" without the appropriate video?

Dave Bry (#422)

@BadUncle Thank you. (Seriously, I hadn't seen/heard/thought of that in far too long. It's so great. My day is better than it was ten minutes ago.)

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Dave Bry Thanks to it's misuse/overuse, when I want to say something is literally "random" I hesitate and choose another word. And while we're complaining about words: I am sick of people/characters/spokespeople asking "really!?". I know SNL made a funny skit of it years ago but please stop, things aren't that surprising and why can't weird behavior be left at that. I mean COME ON!

@BadUncle That link was so good, I feel compelled to comment for the first time ever. Thank you. To add to the list of misused words losing their meaning, my preteen is terribly fond of "random." Terribly, terribly fond.

the teeth (#380)

@Dave Bry As I tell all my imaginary students, whenever you find yourself about to say 'literally', fuckin' replace it with "fuckin'".

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@Lisa Furlong Jones@facebook As an Old, I am mystified by this, which I also hear/see constantly. Where did it come from?!

I am also really, really sick of über-everything.

MattP (#475)

6. It gives pedantic grammarians the chance to chide people about a word that isn't irregardless, which, you know, yay.

skahammer (#587)

@MattP: Pedantic grammarians turn me right the fuck on. Literally.

mochi (#232,676)

@MattP The hyperbolic usage isn't even incorrect, as so many people seem to think. It's just overused. I don't get the rage, but then again I'm not surrounded by people that use it in every other sentence.

GLanyon (#282)

I just remember hearing the British use "literally" correctly, and thinking they sounded smart and self-deprecating. Now the word makes my skin crawl. I blame reality TV (which I love with a blazing passion) for all this. The people on those shows use terms incorrectly and there's no correction. Worth it for the lolz, but painful nonetheless.

Nancy Sin (#232,943)

See also: all other adverbs.

ejcsanfran (#489)

You forgot the worst usage of all: saying "literally" when they mean "figuratively." It is literally the worst thing ever.

notfromvenus (#232,002)

@ejcsanfran AGH that is the worst thing ever, and one of my biggest pet peeves. "He was literally torn apart by grief" – what, really? I don't think so!

Donkey Dance (#236,629)

@ejcsanfran Hey, if it's good enough for Joyce, it's good enough for me.

"Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet."

@ejcsanfran I had the same thought, but then I remembered that hitting-yourself-over-the-head-with-a-dictionary part in the beginning.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Hoo! Sidesplitting. (But not, erm, hahahaha.)

p.s. it is useful once in a while, e.g. "No I mean literally he broke a leg."

rcr (#236,580)

There's definitely a problem here, but maybe not with the use of "literally"?… Here's a point to consider: "Grammar sticklers may have OCD"

http://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/76120?count=1&ACTION=DIALOG

Definitely worth the click

@rcr No surprise there; I'm a grammar stickler and may have OCD.

Improper grammar is still wrong, whether or not I've got a mental condition that has a special name.

zidaane (#373)

I will totally stop doing this.

OuackMallard (#774)

I will probably be pilloried for this, but I sometimes like when "literally" is used ex post facto to make a pun. Something like, "Because it was his first time, the dominatrix showed him the ropes. Literally." The author's examples, however, are of terrible usage.

@OuackMallard That's a perfectly valid use.

Ian Carey@facebook (#165,812)

Nobody's going to mention the first sentence of "The Dead"?

skahammer (#587)

@Ian Carey@facebook: Nah, they were all acquitted.

Except Pigpen. Always unlucky, that Pigpen.

Donkey Dance (#236,629)

@Ian Carey@facebook
I did up above before I read your comment.

Note to self: Read all of the comments before commenting.

Ian Carey@facebook (#165,812)

@Donkey Dance It's worth noting that Joyce was intentionally misusing it there to adopt the uneducated voice of the caretaker's daughter…

hockeymom (#143)

It's a crutch. I try to replace 'literally' with 'actually'. It's still just as bad, but at least I feel better.
Plus, I had a J-school prof (ha, REMEMBER THEM?) drill into my head that unless you are talking about a book, don't fucking say literally.

Also, TV people, stop saying Lit-TRA-Lee. Read the damn teleprompter. Where is that R? That's right, it's AFTER the E.

I hate this word just so much.

KarlLaFong (#3,568)

ABSOLUTELY!!!!

How about "usage" when "use" is the correct word? As in "This is simply the worst usage of the word I've ever heard."

Glass house motherfuckers.

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@My Number Is My Address Also, "utilize." JUST SAY USE, PEOPLE!

Goto Tengo@facebook (#232,749)

@My Number Is My Address I don't quite get your point; usage is perfectly appropriate here. As for "literally", I can only assume entropy has set in, and our lives have become so empty that we now require this word in almost every conversation. It holds the same peeved place for me as the exclamation mark and "nice". Don't say someone's nice; just get to the point and say they're physically unattractive and you're superficial. Don't use "literally" or !!!s. Just start using "fucking" as an adjective.

teenie (#235,723)

i think most people just want most other people to shut the fuck up.

indrifan (#236,628)

Literally is literally a shibboleth, but has been used as an intensifier for centuries: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002611.html

Bobby@twitter (#236,630)

It really all goes back to Rachel Zoe, as many things usually do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obDJrK9p6mI

While we're piling on, when did everyone all willy-nilly decide that it is ok to replace "reluctant" with "reticent"? The primary meaning of "reticent" is being reluctant to do something specific – speak. If you are reluctant to have that third martini, you may be soft. You might be wise. But you are not "reticent". Unless of course you drank until you were no longer speaking…

Filthyknitter (#236,631)

Gaaaaah I have a colleague who does this all the time, as in, "This is an invoice from the stationery supplier…yep, this is literally their invoice"….a) I AM NOT DISPUTING THIS, colleague! and b) how could it be an invoice from the stationery supplier OTHER THAN LITERALLY??

Girlparts (#219,041)

Actually, basically, definitely, honestly. These, along with "literally", enrage me. Usually, if someone says "I literally just got there" I will respond with "are you sure you didn't FIGURATIVELY just get there?"

eppaleopardsy (#236,670)

I literally don't mind language change.

Josh K-sky@twitter (#236,747)

No, no, no. It is fine to use "literally" the way the way many, many people have used it for centuries. This is all status anxiety. I have a rant! http://heteronomy.wordpress.com/2012/08/07/tuesday-hatred-of-word-nerds/

robxerox (#235,722)

I find it annoying when people use the word "myself", but not reflexively, just to make themselves sound more sophisticated or something.

But I, myself, just used the word "people" wrong above because I guess I wanted to sound less sophisticated, or something.

>>'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."

Not to be a stickler, but unless this is his grandmother's birthday, and she is turning 110 years old right…NOW, then she's not literally 110: She's literally 110 years, 2 months, 3 days and 2 hours old.

I know you disagree, but I don't have a problem with the "literally across the street" thing. Used judiciously, the word adds clarity. You could say, "I'm across the river from my buddy's ranch," and still be 50 miles away. Adding that one word, again,if done properly, provides detail: One could say, "I am LITERALLY across the river from my buddy's place. I can see his pool from here!" Now you get a sense of how close he is.

That works a bit better… you know it does!

biii (#242,002)

I don’t suppose I have read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject.
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baber (#244,003)

I have always thought of the word 'literally' as someone else's problem. Then, suddenly, it arrived: My summer of Literally.!!thanks!!!
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johsn (#245,069)

I have always thought of the word 'literally' as someone else's problem. Then, suddenly, it arrived: My summer of Literally
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Sarah Miller, you sound like you literally need to get laid.

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