Literally Giving up the Fight on Literally

I need a lot of things. What I don’t need is to waste energy and time enthusiastically dictating the proper use of an adverb to people who enjoy abusing it in a way that many others find addictive and catchy.

So I am literally giving up the fight on “literally”

But I’m literally going out with a bang. BANG!

The reason why I think it’s time (for me at least) to call it a day on the “true” definition of “literally” is the sheer abundance and popularity of the wrong use. Here’s a quick explanation of the difference between the two.

RIGHT: I was so scared I literally shit myself. There was poo in my pants.
WRONG: It was literally raining cats and dogs. By which I mean water.

raining-cats-and-dogs

Simple enough. If something is literally happening, then it is actually genuinely taking place. If your Dad literally explodes with anger, you had better start looking for a new Dad, and cleaning the pieces of your old Dad off the walls.

So if I have such a clear idea of the definition of literally, why am I letting it go?

Because language is dynamic. Language is constantly shifting and evolving. That’s why I can get away with starting this burst of sentence fragments with “because” and ending it with whatever preposition I want to.

Let’s go back to the example of the exploding Dad, and look at the linguistic and grammatical choices.

mans-head-exploding

Dad was angry.

Little bit drab, isn’t it? In a world of exaggeration, flashing billboards, explosions, car crashes and the kids with their rock and roll music, Dad’s anger doesn’t seem to be that much of a big deal here.

Dad was really angry!

Ok, this is a little better. Dad’s anger is on a level with all the other noise and nonsense buzzing around our heads and lives. But still.. where are you going to go from here? Dad probably gets angry all the time, so you need some way of establishing when he really gets properly angry, and since “really” is already in use you’ve got to run with something new.

Dad exploded with anger!

This is where we find ourselves most of the time. A little creative wordplay, and our attention is briefly pricked by the suggestion that Dad exploded. We question what actually happened to him, before realising he of course didn’t explode but only lost his cool a bit above his usual limit. We’re all happy. Except Dad. Dad’s angry.

But…

This idea of someone exploding with rage is nothing new. It’s an established exaggeration or metaphor, a go-to response so common it was the first one I jumped to in order to explain my point. When someone says Dad explodes with anger, we don’t really react any more. It just means anger to us, not any special kind of anger above or beyond a normal level.

So…

Dad literally exploded with anger!

The first response to this is usually one of disbelief, coupled with criticism. “Don’t be stupid, your Dad didn’t actually explode, so stop abusing ‘literally’ like that.” … but that’s just the point. By suggesting that Dad genuinely exploded, the severity of ‘exploded’ is brought back into play after a generation or two of becoming a dull cliche. Suddenly Dad’s anger is of palpable interest, something above and beyond and worthy of attention.

Dad needs to calm the fuck down.

So there it is. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right, maybe I’m exhausted with all the explanations and debate. It literally makes my brain melt. That said, if you have anything to add or ask, please pop it in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.

Literally Nick
xx