People abuse the English language in many ways, but I am never more bothered than when I hear the word “literally” misused. Take a perfectly good idiomatic hyperbole like “scared to death,” for example. Why do some folks insist on trying to add emphasis to this phrase by saying “I was literally scared to death”? No, my friend, you were figuratively scared to death. Had it been literal, you wouldn’t be here now.
Some of the most striking abuses occur in the context of sports. Several years ago I was listening to an NFL playoff game involving the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were trying to mount a last-minute comeback. As they drove down the field, the announcer declared, regarding their quarterback at the time, “Cordell Stewart is literally trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat.” Naturally, I wondered why he would do that while playing football. In another case, an ESPN radio commentator was discussing the poise of a particular basketball player when he said that this player “literally has ice water in his veins.” Uh huh. But my all-time favorite—if you can call it a “favorite”—appeared on a website advertising a student development conference. The blurb about the keynote speaker asserted that this person’s work had “literally turned the world upside-down.” Hmm. Now that is impressive.
Other common linguistic mistakes, such as mispronunciations (of words like “nuclear” and “asterisk”) and confusions of terms (such as “jealous” for “envious” or “sarcastic” for “caustic”) are annoying but excusable. However, faulty uses of “literally” are on a different level because they typically spoil a perfectly serviceable metaphor or hyperbole. And it is even more disturbing when the offender is a professional broadcaster or academic.
So, gentle reader, I beg you to be responsible in your use of this word. Or, if you must abuse it, please do it in private so that others won’t be corrupted by your indiscretion. My hope is that we can put an end to this error, because if I hear the word abused again I am going to lose my mind. Figuratively speaking, of course.