Mar 27 2015

Literally literally does not mean literally

“Update: Graham’s spokesperson has clarified to Bloomberg that when Graham said “I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to,” that statement was “not to be taken literally.” Glad that’s been cleared up.”

–from Vox.com’s article about Lindsey Graham. They don’t say it, but people who don’t understand what literally literally means literally should not be in public office. Literally.

via One Foot Tsunami

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Mar 24 2013

Yes, literally

A couple of years ago a guy who worked for me had a toe thumb. I mean, he literally had a toe for a thumb–his big toe, to be specific. He had gotten his hand caught in a wood chipper and had lost parts of most of his fingers and his entire thumb. Doctors removed one of his big toes and grafted it in so that he could have an opposable digit. I thought it was pretty brilliant. He was a great worker, and he had the biggest thumb on Earth.

I tried explaining this to my students, and one of them wasn’t getting it.

ME: I have a guy who works for me who has a toe thumb.

GIRL: Wow, he must have a really big thumb.

ME: Well, yeah, he has a toe for a thumb.

GIRL: (totally not getting it) I know someone who has a really big thumb, too.

ME: No, this guy literally has a toe for a thumb.

GIRL: This guy I know, his thumb is–

ME: NO, this guy lost his thumb in a wood chipper and they surgically attached his toe where his thumb used to be.

GIRL:  (finally getting it) You mean a real toe?

I have seen this creeping into the written word as well. Two books I have read recently both suffer from this affliction. In one author’s book the phrase ‘literally eating each other alive’ is so far removed from any context of cannibalism that I can still discern the meaning. The other author, however, uses ‘literally’ twice in two pages. The context of the first one seems to suggest actual literality–but the context of the second one is fairly ambiguous, and rendered even more ambiguous by the first one.

While I was at a conference last week the conversation turned to my peeve, upon which I was declared a grammar-Nazi, until I persuaded them to use ‘grammar fascist.’ Upon returning from vacation, I found this link at Galleycat (via One Foot Tsunami) similarly decrying this sloppy abuse of the word.

It’s sad that the one word that most accurately means literally has now come to mean ‘completely opposite of literally.’  This is called, among other things, an auto-antonym, but I prefer the word ‘antagonym.’

 

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