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The importance of literal-mindedness

John Murray

If there’s one thing that literally gets on my nerves, literally drives me round the bend and literally has me tearing out my hair, it’s people who don’t use the term ‘literally’ properly.

Actually, I would argue that’s a lie. These people don’t  come into contact with my central nervous system at all, nor do they transport me round any corners via a car or other wheeled vehicle, and I certainly can’t blame them for my receding hairline.

If we’re following up-to-date dictionaries, however, those people do indeed ‘literally’ do all these things. According to Oxford Dictionaries, ‘literally’ can be:

“Used for emphasis while not being literally true…”

I’ve argued before that there’s no point in getting angry at the dictionary, as it only reflects what people are saying. You have to say though that this particular example is a massive shame. As English speakers, we should be very disappointed with ourselves for allowing this definition to get into the dictionary.

One, if not the worst, proponent for the misuse of ‘literally’ is the ITV football pundit Andy Townsend. Some of the bizarre phrases I can remember him coming out with over the years include:

“Podolski should’ve scored there, that chance was literally on a plate for him.”

“The defender was literally caught with his trousers down.”

“Henry is a player who can literally change a game in a flash.”

He’s not the only culprit. The book ‘Literally…Laugh Your Head Off’ by Steven Appleby features a collection of non-literal uses of ‘literally’ used by high-profile figures, each accompanied by an illustration of what it would look like if it really had been literal.

Most of the time, I think additions to the dictionary help to broaden and enrich the language we speak, but this is an exception. The sad thing is that this meaning of ‘literally’ comes at the detriment of the more time-honoured definition, which is actually a clever turn of phrase that links a well-known saying with something physically happening. Consider the following examples in comparison to the aforementioned Townsendisms:

“Funds being spent on a new sewage system are literally going down the drain.”

“With a career as an airline pilot, the sky is literally the limit.”

“Plans for a new high-speed train are back on track – quite literally.”

Alright, none of the above are works of comic genius, but they show an ability to give a phrase a double meaning and perform a play on words, which is a bit more creative and intelligent than just plastering idioms about.

The new definition of ‘literally’ doesn’t do any of that; it just takes all the wit and imagination out of the word and uses it as a tool for poorly expressed emphasis. It’s like taking an implement designed to be used for professional brain surgery and using it to open a soft drink can.

What if the new definition becomes the more accepted one? What if one day it literally rained cats and dogs? Neither the Met Office nor the RSPCA would take any reports seriously, because there would be no way to explain the situation without it just sounding like you were describing heavy rain.

The good news is that definitions can drop out of the dictionary if they fall out of usage, so please stop using ‘literally’ wrongly. Think carefully about whether what you’re about to say is actually tangibly happening or is just a figure of speech. Otherwise, I will throw the book at you, and I literally mean that literally.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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