Due to the nature of my job and my own weird fascination with torturing myself, I read a lot of comments posted by people on comments sections. This, as it turns out, is a massive waste of my own time, and it further supports my idea that we should all stop talking to each other because apparently we all ran out of things to say to each other on the internet sometime around 2002.
Something I’ve noticed when I search the internet for people having text-based discussions is the momentary popularity of certain words. I get to see the ebb and flow of language, the rise and decline of certain words in modern speech. Specifically, I get to see how a random little word gains strength and almost becomes its own meme. Whether people realize it or not, there are times when certain innocuous words are used heavily by many people, before fading away as if we weren’t all just griped with a very light form of mass hysteria that caused us all to jump on the word’s bandwagon like fair-weather sports fans that only like a team when “they’re doing that winning thing.” (That’s something I actually overheard regarding a local sports team).
The word of the moment is literally, as in, “Dave literally killed that old lady.”
The word is everywhere. Hop on to the comment section of your favorite website and you’re bound to find at least a couple of commenters not only using the word literally in their rants about their hatred of Glee and Justin Bieber, but there’s a good chance they’ll be literally misusing literally.
Here’s an article about the complete misuse of literally from Boston.com from June of 2011.
NBC’s terrific Parks and Recreation has a character that misuses literally so often that it’s become a catchphrase. “Lit-ter-ally.”
As the links above point out, people tend to use literally as an intensifier instead of what it actually is, which is actually, as in “No, dude, I’m fucking serious about the crazy shit that I’m talking about.” Literally is a way for you to inform someone that what you’re saying isn’t an exaggeration. As hard as what you’re saying is to believe, it really did happen. It literally happened. I literally wrote this article while wearing nothing but boxer-shorts and flip flops. Seeing as I used literally correctly in the previous sentence, you know that I am not exaggerating and I am trying to make you understand that I really did write every word in this article, including the words I’m typing right now at this very moment, while wearing nothing but underwear and flip flops. I literally did that.
But maybe what we’re seeing and hearing with the new usage of literally isn’t a mass misuse, but the evolution of the word. When I check the definition of literally on merriam-webster.com, I don’t find just one simple, easy definition of literally, I find two…
: in a literal sense or manner :actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>
:in effect:virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>
…and they contradict each other!
Definition one means “No, dude, I’m f*cking serious about the crazy shit that I’m talking about,” and definition two means “Did you see that L-word I used in front of my ridiculous claim?! That means my crazy claim is LIKE GODDAMN KICK-FLIPS AND SNOWBOARDS – SO F*CKING EXTREME AND INTENSE!!”
One word, two meanings, one grounded in reality, the other used to heighten the drama of exaggeration. And this is official. It’s from Webster’s, which is an American-based company. Yet, strangely enough, the Oxford English Dictionary, which hails from England, contains only one definition of literally, the correct one. The one that means “No, dude, I’m fucking serious…”. On top of that, Oxford goes one step further by adding this sidebar to their definition of literally:
In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’, as for example in I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally. In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects ( we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.
Oxford has the correct definition, and then they include a whole paragraph explaining how people misuse the word and they never mix the new, evolved definition with the old one, because it contradicts the old one.
We Americans be dumb and shit and we get so used to being dumb and shit that we learn to accept the fact that we be dumb and shit and we make being dumb and shit apart of who we are, so much so that you can look it up in a dictionary.
This may or may not be a terrible thing. Honestly, I think it’s funny. We’re a silly people. We say one thing and mean another, and most of the time we don’t even realize it, which I’m sure leads to a lot of confusion when our words get translated in to another language. I have no idea if this is a fact, but it’s been said that English is the hardest language to learn. If that’s true, then American English must be the hardest version of English to learn because American English, like Americans themselves, are f*cking ridiculous.
We are literally the most ridiculous people on Earth.