If I read/hear the word “literally” used to draw emphasis to a phenomenon, my head is literally going to explode.
Alright, you have probably heard the trite use of the word “literally” endorsed from celebrities and rock stars, to journalists and media moguls; but I think it is time to stand up and reconsider the use of the word literally as a way to emphasis and clarify our reliance on clichés and metaphors.
I wasn’t going to write a post about this topic. In fact, I have been jotting down a list of chapter ideas for a non-fiction book regarding the use of popularly accepted idioms such as “like,” “really,” and so forth in order to, perhaps, start a new blog. I firmly think that these words betray something unique about our experience in this world as it is right now. I think it betrays what Jean-François Lyotard first named the “Postmodern Condition” in which all of our experiences are kept at a relative distance form ourselves—obviously I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but you get the point.
In an earlier post, I analyzed the use of the word “like” as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as “really” and “seriously” to bring that simulated experience (the “like”) closer to us.
Here is an example from my post:
Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”
It comes down to our basic social function in this world: communicating our experiences and lives to another human being. But if we cannot grasp the fundamental description of life experiences that happen to our own person, then we will find a way to make up for that, let’s call it, gap in proximity or happening.
My point of focus today is the word “literally,” and I think it fulfills three social functions:
- It acknowledges the trite overuse—and universal knowledge of this overuse—of a cliché and amends its overuse by attempting to make the cliché a real occurrence.
- It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
- It makes the experience closer, more alive, more Real, more True.
Okay, I literally just went to The Atlantic Monthly‘s website and scanned four articles for the word “literally”. I found one use of it in the comment section (yes, it aids my point). So, let’s dissect his or her’s little sentence with and without the word “literally”
“So the point is, you literally *cannot* escape at this point”
“So the point is, you *cannot* escape at this point”
The commenter is discussing Google, Facebook and Technologies hold on our lives. Yes, yes, it’s horrible—he types across a wi-fi network. The author’s point is that we cannot escape from technology. So, why is he or she using the word literally? The sentence functions perfectly without it, right? Well, kind of.
The author is using an absolute idea. To his or her absolutist point: you cannot escape technology. Well, but, you probably can. There is no way for this author to account for all cases of occurrences where someone attempted to escape the Internet’s grasp and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, no one has that knowledge. It’s impossible to know. In our postcolonial era, claiming that you have absolute knowledge is a logical fallacy, and this author is aware of that fallacy. So, what the author does is place the word “literally” in front of the fallacy in order to emphasize the absolutism of the word “*cannot*”. The irony is that the use of the word “literally” implies that the author cannot prove this fact, so without the word “literally” the sentence becomes closer to a type of Truth.
Here is my final argument: it is not that the sentence needs the word “literally” to emphasize the absolutism; rather, it is that the reader needs the word “literally” to verify and communicate something unique to our time and space. As far as I’m concerned that intangible thing that the reader needs is capitalized Truth. And Truth over the Internet is very, very, really, super-hard to come by because it is unverifiable. Truth over the Internet is intangible. It is the very thing that we are seeking when we type “How do I…” on Google, but then scan three sources before believing the top result.
Sure, this could be simple cynicism and mistrust of knowledge, but I am not about to write off the social predominance of the word “literally” by news media corporations, pundits, documentary film makers, learned individuals, and average Americans. It cannot be that simple.
So, I ask you to aid me in my quest for Truth, and let’s reconsider our use of the word “literally” before we speak or write. Hmmmm, I didn’t even discuss the use of metaphor vs. literally, but that’s for a different post.
Thanks for reading, everyone.
(Edited: To add to my point, I found this a few minutes ago by one of my favorite writers, Derek Thompson: “That other websites don’t do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation”. Sheesh. “Literally” is literally everywhere!)