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.


9 Responses to “Literally”


  1. Devon

     

    I love your guys’ blog! You speak to all the things that really matter to me in life (like today’s gem). Of course, I had to re-read this comment some 56 times to make sure I didn’t use any Spiegel language faux pas. And I still probably did.

    Hope all is well.

    Reply
  2. Zach

     

    Oh no, Spiegel…I am guilty! Thank you for the correction.

    Also, I like the itty-bitty smiley face at the bottom of this page.

    Reply
  3. Andrew

     

    I suppose it pretty much goes without saying, but this post is a literal gold nugget among the normal sludge of the web. Nice work, Jim.

    Reply
  4. Shane Tucker

     

    Spiegel, great post on the common vs. the correct use of language. I am a ‘lover’ of words (what classification is my use of that verb?) and I too find myself struggling with turns of phrase and proper usage when listening to others. I hear my mother in my head (no, not literally) telling me to go check out the dictionary for myself or quizzing me on spelling. Maybe that’s part of the reason I often make suggestions to my kids for alternate verbal configurations . . . Good to see you blogging! I’m here: http://wwwdreamtoday.blogspot.com (cumbersome, I know!). Blessings from Eire.

    Reply
  5. layla

     

    maybe you could just stop listening to/watching ESPN…and maybe ask a few other males to do the same

    i am highly irritated by those who misuse the english language; however, i must not allow my feelings toward the speech cloud my compassion for the speaker

    i just keep hearing a line from miss spider’s sunny patch
    kindness is the finest…

    Reply
  6. Chris Jones

     

    Spiegel:

    Another word sports broadcasters misuse is ‘huge’, as in, “that catch was huge”, or “what a huge play”. What they mean is that the play or catch was ‘important’ or ‘exciting’, not that it was ‘bigger’ than other previous catches. If I liked your post, I could say “what a huge post”, which doesn’t really make any sense. What I’m meaning to convey with the word ‘huge’ is that the post was ‘important’ or ‘insightful’, and not “that post was 10 feet taller and wider than any other post I’ve ever seen!” But if we mean a catch is important or exciting, why don’t we just say ‘important’ rather than ‘huge’?

    I wonder if this poor grammar is not a Freudian slip, but some kind of Freudian grammatical complex confirming that men and women (for I’ve heard sportscasters of both genders say this) truly think, despite protestations to the contrary, that size does matter.

    Even though that analysis is a bit more fun, I think it’s probably the case that responsible use of the word ‘huge’ hasn’t been reinforced either. Or, am I at fault for taking a figurative expression literally?

    Reply
  7. BH in HSV AL

     

    From the NYTimes:
    “As the Martian days shorten and temperatures drop, Phoenix’s solar panels will eventually not be able to produce enough energy to keep the spacecraft warm.”
    This led Barry Goldstein, Phoenix’s project manager, to say, “We are trying to literally make hay as the sun shines, and really try to get the most of the science instruments in these last few days before the end of the mission.”

    So NASA is planting grasses on Mars, cutting and storing them as winter fodder for farm animals! Betcha didn’t know our space program was so advanced!

    Reply
  8. Elliott P.

     

    Seen this past weekend in a bookstore in Hannibal, MO, on the back of a travel guide written by SLC:

    “This book will literally let you see the world through Mark Twain’s eyes.”

    Not only does buying the book include one free ticket for a trip around the world, but includes an ocular transplant as well (from a donor who’s been dead nearly 100 years)!

    Reply

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