Wednesday, January 14, 2004

English Cop

Am I the only one who is disturbed by the growing practice of using the word "literally" for emphasis, even though one actually means "figuratively"?

Always in need of new hyperbolic twists to describe events that are largely similar to events that have occurred numerous times before ("He made a tremendous catch!", "he made an awe-inspiring catch!", "he made a god-like catch!", "he made a catch that defies the laws of physics as we currently understand them!"), sports writers seem particularly vulnerable to this benign form of spontaneous NewSpeak1.

Take, for instance, this:
"[Peyton Manning] literally put the Chiefs defense in the electric chair and kept playing with the switch."
No, Clayton, he did not, unless I missed the follow-up article in which you describe the charred remains of the Chiefs being cleaned off the field with a vacuum.

In the English language, the word "literally" signifies that what follows is untainted by hyperbole or rhetoric, and so you should pay close attention to it.

So quit crying wolf and just find a new adverb, damn it.

1 NewSpeak? How? By using a word in a situation where it actually means the opposite of its accepted definition, you ultimately render the word meaningless - the ultimate goal of NewSpeak as understood by Winston Smith.

Update: Good news/bad news.

Good news: According to the folks at the American Heritage dictionary, I am right about this practice being quite improper. But we knew that.

Bad news: According to the same source, I am wrong - it isn't new at all. Apparently critics have been bitching about this for quite some time:
" For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists... will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itselfif it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively” but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended."

No comments: