It’s truly difficult to walk through society these days without feeling irritation at nearly every turn.
It’s in my face every day, all day, and frankly, as a society we appear to be at the point where it will never get any better.
Of course I’m talking about the overuse and misuse of the word “literally.” It is literally everywhere. My kids say it constantly. Coworkers. Friends. Enemies. Strangers. Fast-food workers. I’m pretty sure my dog barks it. And I can feel the word trying to worm its way into things I’m saying all the time.
I know, it’s nothing all that new. Looking at the worldwide web, there are complaints about the overuse/misuse of this word going back 15 years, but somehow it just seems to have gotten worse lately.
Or maybe I’m just “woke” to it. (Don’t get me started on “woke.”) I’m not exactly sure at what point I became unable to not notice every … single … time someone says “literally.” And before any of you start thinking I’m trying to be holier than thou or snooty, I’m probably a recovering addict myself.
See, that’s what is so insidious about “literally.” People don’t even know they’re saying it. The word has become some kind of dog whistle simply meant to communicate to the listener that the person speaking feels strongly about what they’re saying or was surprised in some way. Or perhaps none of the above.
“Hey, you want to get a sandwich?”
“I literally just ate.”
I’m not really sure what to make of such an exchange. Perhaps there’s a level of surprise one may feel after having just eaten and then being asked to eat again. Or maybe even a misplaced feeling of irony or fate that needs to be conveyed by supercharging your sentence with a spare “literally.”
Certainly among my teenage children anything exciting that happened at school or sporting event will require several “literallys” to explain. “The quarterback literally just threw the ball right to the DB for a pick six!” The presence of “literally” in a sentence like that makes my brain suddenly wonder if there was any figurative way the QB could have lost the game by throwing an interception.
Lately I feel a lot like Neo in “The Matrix.” I took the red pill offered by some kind of grammar guru Morpheus, and now all I can see is the “literallys” floating figuratively all around me. I would love to go back to the way it was, like the other guy in “The Matrix” who wants to have his mind wiped so he just thinks he’s a normal human again. Ignorance was bliss. Not being able to hear when someone said “literally” 16 times during a 20-minute conversation was heaven, even if that conversation was about that person’s bunions. Now every time I hear “literally,” it’s like breaking glass or a clown shoehorn. I can’t unhear it.
Early on into this epiphany about “literally,” I likened it to the constant misuse of the phrase “I couldn’t care less.” The vast majority of society says “I could care less,” which has a tendency to drive me crazy as well since the point the person is trying to make is that he/she is completely unconcerned about whatever it is they “could care less” about. Obviously, if you say you could care less, then logically it means you do actually have some level of care.
People misuse that phrase so much some grammarians have just given in and accepted it to mean what it doesn’t. But “could care less” is like Halley’s Comet compared to “literally.” You might hear someone say they could care less once or twice a week, but I bet after you read this you’ll literally hear people say “literally” once an hour. At a minimum.
I wrestled with whether it is actually cruel to even write a column about this in the first place. There will be people — people like I once was — who say “literally” all the time and don’t realize it and have adopted it as their clever way of emphasizing something. Reading about this might cause them to suffer a level of irritation that eventually leads to climbing up a bell tower with a high-powered rifle. If that happens, I will deny all blame.
Certainly some reading this column have turned to a friend or spouse by this point and said something like, “This clown is literally writing about nothing.” Thankfully, they will not suffer. Bless them.
But some of you will, and I’m sorry.
The only ray of hope I can offer is that we have made it through tough grammatical times before. Everyone can remember the plague of “likes” that peppered speech not that long ago. That scourge seems to have subsided a bit, but it’s still with us. The rising use of the word “dope” to describe something cool or interesting is frightening, but I can’t ever see a bunch of 80-year-olds describing a new hip as “dope.”
For those who do become hypersensitive to “literally,” I can say ridicule has been effective in curbing it to some degree within my own home and I highly recommend it. If this leads to divorce, I will deny all blame.
Hopefully in our lifetimes we’ll never see another earworm as pervasive and attractive to people of all ages, ethnicities and educational backgrounds as “literally.” Crack and meth just wish they were as addictive. If only Nancy Reagan were still around to start a “Don’t say ‘literally’” campaign, but alas she’s literally not.
Trying to stop using “literally” is going to be a battle for you folks, I’m not going to lie. It still pops right in line in my brain all the time, ready to jump out as part of a sentence. Sometimes I think it would just be easier to give up and lead a life of overemphasizing things that aren’t that important. But that’s just literally talking.
I’m determined to win this battle. Literally.