â€œI got ROBBED. I don't mean the Oscars, I mean literally. My pants and shoes have been stolen.â€
— Albert Brooks, in a Tweet last week.
Commenting recently on the GOP presidential race, prominent political prognosticator Larry Sabato said that in Florida, â€œwe have what is literally a Category 5 hurricane for the Republican nomination.â€
Literally? Yikes. The last time a Cat-5 hurricane made landfall in the United States was seven years ago, when Katrina slammed into New Orleans. Tuesdayâ€™s primary was eventful, but nothing as bad as all that. The word Sabato wanted was â€œfiguratively,â€ not literally.
He is not alone. About the same time, a Denver TV station was reporting that a young man named Jordan Staucet â€œis pounding the pavement â€" literally â€" looking for a job.â€ So he was hammering the concrete with his fists? Not exactly. He was simply walking around handing out rÃ©sumÃ©s.
â€œPounding the pavementâ€ is an idiom, a figure of speech, and normally nobody would perform a figurative act literally. If you say someone does pound the pavement literally, then you are saying â€" well, you know.
Unlike the Denver station, Deadline grokked that distinction when it surmised Dwight Schrute, a character on The Office, could be â€œoff to greener pastures â€¦ literally.â€ ABC reportedly has been considering a spinoff that would feature the Schrute family on its beet farm.
It was a different story for The Awl, which complained recently that â€œFree Subway Rag Now Literally Destroying America.â€ (The Awl is free too; maybe free online rags are superior to free print rags. Anythingâ€™s possible!) The object of the authorâ€™s ire was a publication called Metro, which had written a headline about Barack Obamaâ€™s State of the Union address that the Awl writer didnâ€™t like. America, somehow, is still standing.
In that case, the Awl writer was so cheesed off she felt it not sufficient to say merely that Metro was destroying the nation. She wanted to say so even more emphatically, and so added â€œliterally,â€ which seems vaguely illiterate.
This is a snooty, pedantic complaintâ€"but certainly not an original one. A â€œDictionary of Jackâ€ YouTube video made the same point five years ago. Minnesota Public Radio has aired the question. Plenty of others have griped about the subject as well. For a while, there was a blog keeping track of slipshod uses of literallyâ€"such as when Education Secretary Arne Duncan said starting the school year in September, rather than sometime earlier, was â€œliterally taking a step backward.â€ (Because students forget what they learn in the spring.) Or when a spokeswoman for Sarah Palin said â€œthe world is literally her oyster.â€ Palinâ€™s detractors would call that casting pearls before swine.
To be fair, this persnickety criticism might not be, um, fair. Jesse Sheidlower, a dictionary editor, let it be known a while back in Slate that we shouldnâ€™t take such statements quite so literally. In â€œThe Trouble With Literally,â€ he notes that using literally as an intensifier has quite a literary pedigree. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Jay Gatsby â€œliterally glowed,â€ and Louisa May Alcott wrote that â€œthe land literally flowed with milk and honey.â€ They didnâ€™t mean either of those statements literally. They meant Gatsby really, really glowed and the land was really, really plentiful.
To Sheidlower, this is no big deal, since in the strictest sense, â€œliterallyâ€ does not mean what we usually mean it to mean anyway. We have already wandered from the original purpose of â€œliterallyâ€ whenever we use it in any sense other than â€œto copy a text word for word or letter for letter.â€ (The Latin root is litteralis, â€œof or relating to letters.â€) So if you say you are literally sick to your stomach, and then vomit, you are still using the word â€œliterally,â€ as it were, figuratively.
Or at least thatâ€™s his theory. Sheidlower is obviously some sort of Bolshevik, in league with the one-worlders at the UN who are pushing Agenda 21 down our throats with black helicopters and lies about evolution and global warming. All patriotic Americans ought to stand up and say enough is enough. We need a law to put a stop to this literally-abuse. If we donâ€™t get one â€" and soon â€" then the Almighty is sure to send another Flood as punishment for our transgressions.
In fact, it may already be too late. As these words are written, it is raining cats and dogs outside. Literally!
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.