I was Literally not Going to Write This Post Today

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:

  1. 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.
  2. It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
  3. 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.

TechThe 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!)

Simulacra and Simile: This Post is Really, Like, Super Important

“That really, seriously just happened, like, literally, two minutes ago.”

As an English major and an adjunct professor of English/Humanities, many people make some pretty classic assumptions about me: I’m a grammar nerd, I’ve read every classic work of Literature you name from memory, and I detest slang. Well, none of those are true: I haven’t, until recently, paid enough attention to grammar, I read more Said, Marx, and Spivak than Defoe, Shelley, or Austen in my MA program, and I love how slang functions and defines a culture.

I want to put this post into context. Over the last one and a half years, I have made three trips to Germany to visit my gf. ZeitDuring that time, I have been listening to Pimsleur German audio in my car to improve what remains of my very limited high school and college German language and grammar skills. I’m going to focus on two characteristics about the German language that distinguish it from American slang, and reveal a particularity about American culture.

First, you have to listen to the entire German sentence to know what is happening! (Because the verb comes at the end. For instance, in the last sentence, the word “listen” wouldn’t come until the end). Second, time is very, very important, and usually occurs before location or the verb. The more specific, the better. So, what does this tell us about American slang?

Well, our discourse is quite general and often hyperbolic. Words such as “really,” “seriously,” and “literally” are attempts to make a language that is general, specific. They are adjectives that replace specific knowledge, or rather, the communication and therefore required memorization of specific times and places. Let’s take the intro quote as an example: the words “really,” “literally,” and “seriously” are added for emphasis. Again, they serve to bolster the non-specificity of general language. But why? Why do we need these words to reenforce the measurement of time?

The first reason is because of the event’s relation to the present. Something that just happened only occurred within a specific time period. SimulacraA phenomenon occurring sixty minutes ago did not just happen. Although, something occurring within 15 minutes may have just happened. To make sure to close that gap we add the adjective “seriously” to emphasis the now-ness of the event. With the advent of “seriously,” the time gap then shrinks to a minute or two of now-ness. The term “literally” conveys a sense of believability, both on the speaker and listener’s part. It is not that we do not trust what the other has to say, but simply that we do not trust that a phenomenon happened to them—something I will discuss later. What is at the core of needing these repeated and quite superfluous emphases? One simple word: “like”.

“You should, like, seriously read this.”

Like is a simile (“a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of different kind; method of comparison”); it is also “similar to” and “in the manner of,” “appropriate to,” “as though,” and finally, informally, “used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty” (all definitions from my Mac Dictionary). The last one is my favorite, yet it does not convey the true cultural significance of the word like. For that, we need another example. This time with a verb.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit.”

I know you’ve heard this conversation. You may even have had this conversation! No worries, though. Slang is a significant method of socialization when eliminating those not, um, biologically speaking, the most fit for secure reproduction, e.g. “cool”. Ahhemmm… Now that we got that out of the way, I ask you: What did Gill do today? Did he throw the football around? Well, technically, no. When Gill uses the simile “like,” he states that he did something like throwing a ball around. He performed a simulation; therefore, he may or may not have thrown the football around. We don’t know. So, he didn’t throw the football around. So what? Well then, smarty-pants, if Gill is stating to you that he didn’t do something that he says he did, then how does he reverse that negative “not doing”? He uses emphasis. Now watch.

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.”

Finally! Gill has provided some much needed emphasis in order to substantiate his earlier claim that he was throwing the football around. The words “really” and “superfast” provide hyperbole that negates this nothingness of simulation, proving to his friend that he actually did do something! He did so much of something that he really did this something! And it was amazing! Really!

What’s important in this post and our understanding of slang is not to dismiss it as insipid, stupid, useless, or a tripe form of communication. Rather we should notice that those overused adjectives betray the postmodern value of a simulation—as nothing really happening directly to us; as the televised launch of the Gulf War; as Jane Austen updated with zombies. The point is: you don’t need anything to actually happen to you (although it does make events richer). You don’t really need to read Pride & Prejudice to get the zombie version, and you don’t really need to hold a gun to be cynical/sympathetic of war. So, when our state of non-being and non-experiencing bumps in to reality, we swing the pendulum back and must overuse hyperbolic adjectives in order to prove that we actually lived…

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to read your comments. Really, I would.