This post took me literally 15 minutes to write.
“Literally,” it seems, has become a word used in just about everyone’s vocabulary these days. Literally. We don’t just say, “I’m five minutes away.” We say “I’m literally five minutes away.”
The use of “literally” has spread so fast and so aggressively that even smart, well-intentioned people are prone to literalize everything.
Here’s what bothers me about the overuse of “literally”: it adds emphasis that doesn’t need to be there. It’s okay to say, “I jumped out of my seat,” or “There were two people in the theater.” You don’t need the exclamation point “literally” provides.
Is the overuse of “literally” a reaction against metaphor? When I say, “The dog had three legs,” what else could I be saying that would necessitate a “literally” in between “had” and “three?”
Now, if you want to clarify a point and make it clear that you’re not using a metaphor, saying “literally” notifies the listener that you are, indeed, speaking in a literal sense. So you can say “all hell broke loose” if a situation gets hairy, but it’s not appropriate to say “all hell, literally, broke loose” unless a hole in the earth swallows your house and little imps and demons carry away your pet llama, while in the background some maniacal laughter signals your doom.
Because unless that happens, hell does not literally break loose. There’s a difference.
Metaphor is a powerful agent in the English language, and we use it – along with similes – every day. I’m as high as a kite, fit as a fiddle, sharp as a tack, happier than a pig in shit, and as rabid as a dog. Also, we are all snowflakes.
But often metaphor isn’t needed, like when we say we’re driving 90 down the highway. The silliness with “literally” is that saying we’re driving 90 down the highway implies meaning and conjures up a visual automatically. There’s no metaphor involved. You’re really driving 90 miles per hour. We get it.
So why the hell would you ever say, “Honey, I’ll be there in a minute; I’m literally going 90 down the highway.”
Was there any confusion? Would your honey not believe you? Was speeding and driving recklessly enough of a stretch in behavior (there’s a metaphor!) for you to qualify your statement with a “literally?”
No. There’s no qualification needed.
Using “literally” goes along with the overuse of “to be honest” or “honestly” (replacing “basically” as the overused phrase of the decade): am I to assume you haven’t spoken to me truthfully before? Why add “honestly?” Are you being super grownup serious when you say, “To be honest?”
Same with “literally.” If you’re implying that you’re using a metaphor in a denotative instead of connotative way, then by all means use “literally.”
You’re literally a pig in a poke? Great. Can’t wait to see you in a dead cat costume, climbing out of a bag, yelling “fooled you!” You literally flew down the road? Super. Can’t wait to see your supersonic hovercraft.
Otherwise, leave the “literally” behind. Because, to be honest, I’m so sick of it I could puke. Literally.