ARTICLE - 'Literally' going on for decades

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ARTICLE - 'Literally' going on for decades

Post  Vincent Law on Wed Oct 24, 2012 9:12 am

"WE are literally turning swords into ploughshares." Thus the New York Times, quoting Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, on a project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for civilian reactors.

In fact, Mr Graham was slightly misquoted: his statement (which the Times helpfully linked to, yet still managed to get wrong) said: "the United States is literally taking nuclear swords and turning them into plowshares." Given that there is no such thing as a nuclear sword, I'm not sure whether this makes the senator's misuse of "literally" less egregious, or even more so. Either way, as R.L.G. complained last week, it's yet another example of a wearisomely common error by English-speakers today. So common that there are literally whole blogs devoted to it.

Yet it is not, as some might suppose, yet further evidence of the burgeoning illiteracy of the internet age. When you double-click "literally" in the Times story you get a little question-mark bubble that takes you to the word's entry in the American Heritage Dictionary (the Times may have its slip-ups about quoting, but by gum it has a well-made website), which contains the following addendum:

USAGE NOTE For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of "in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words." In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example "The 300,000 Unionists ... will be literally thrown to the wolves." The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean "virtually" or "figuratively"—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

My hunch is that the reason for this long-lived reliance on "literally" as an intensifier is that there isn't, oddly, a better one. In most cases, as with the warning about the fate of the Unionists, it's just a way to add punch to one's words. In some it signals that what one is describing is, even if not literally true, so unusual that it might as well be. Mr Graham, with his "swords into ploughshares", was making the point that weapons are extremely rarely converted to civilian use. But what word could he have used instead? "Actually", "really", "genuinely" or "in fact", are, lexically speaking, no more accurate than "literally", and feel considerably weaker. Other qualifiers ("We are doing that rarest of things, converting swords into ploughshares") have even less wind in their sails.

So unless anyone can come up with an alternative, I think we're stuck with the widespread use of "literally" to mean "not literally at all". I'm not even sure this is such a bad thing. Many words have more than one meaning, and with "literally" it's pretty easy to tell them apart. If what someone describes as "literally" true is plausible—"he was standing literally three feet away from me"—then she probably means "literally" literally. And if it's clearly implausible—"his eyes literally popped out of his head"—then it's probably a figure of speech. It's literally as simple as that.
Vincent Law
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