Literally Meaning Nothing

By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of Trevor.

There are a handful of immaturities in language and general colloquialism I still happily, like, ascribe to. (Did you see what I did just there? Eh?)

To participate in the modernity of life is to speak, as the Dude would say, in the parlance of our times. Yet I have never been able to grasp the full appeal of using the word “literally” as a form of emphasis, ever, or at least not outside the context of exaggeration or emphasizing a metaphor.

As linguists, grammar nazis, and responsible citizens of the English language begrudgingly made note of last year, the great powers of influence over our chosen tongue surrendered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the zeitgeist.

For the last year, according to the Webster-Macmillan Dictionary (which powers Google searches), the word “literally” is the only word in English–and possibly ever conceived by terrestrial man–that is officially defined by both its original meaning (an emphasis on a relationship with, you know, reality and accurate description) and now its complete opposite. Or rather, how every idiot who graduated middle school wants to use it: as a way of saying, “I’m fuckin’ serious about this here thing I’m talkin’ ’bout. That fish was literally as big as a truck.”

I don’t mean to be a snob; I’m just saying if this means I am most definitely a snob, then fantastic. Go ahead and send the pitchforks.

But in the favorite words of our president, let me be clear: I’m no ageist, nor a lover of gratuitous formality. My primary complaint is that the English language is already more confused than a GPS stuck under a bridge in a Boston suburb. Such conciliatory gestures by Webster-Macmillian Dictonary and Google toward the tech-engaged tweens is part of the problem here.

As a recovering Catholic, I’m astounded by this unholy triumvirate’s need to out-cool the Oxford English Dictionary. The “Hey, guys. #LGBTrights, selfies, twerking? I’m into what the kids are into!” attitude is awesome when you’re Pope Francis or Cory Booker. But I don’t need the linguistic equivalent of a drunken Wikipedia staff justifying the syntax of every fleeting tweet. No one does. Not even the Oxford English Dictionary–who seem to spend all year polling and debating whether to make certain pejoratives like those last two in any way official–is touching this with a ten foot pole.

In fact if I ever have children and–in the midst of an inquisition on why the sky is blue, where babies come from, and why we can’t play with the window knob–one of them asks me what the hell “literally” means, it’s less that I refuse to give them an answer as much as I just won’t be able to. It doesn’t make any sense to give any object of language such polarity of meaning that they render each other entirely without impact.

To pass “literally” on to any further generations with the great oral tradition of words and grammatical rules that serve functional purposes of expression–even if they are abstract–almost seems like asking to court contempt and distrust in our offspring. If I’m going to give another human being the gift of life–and therefore capacity to communicate–why would I make this any more complicated than it has to be?

Sure, the hairpin turns of phrase and drastic dual meanings of so many synonyms and homonyms is exactly what makes English effortlessly expressive (once you get the hang of it), diverse, finicky, and charismatic. The pleasure of getting lost in that labyrinth is probably shared by everyone complaining about this unfortunate announcement.

But surely in making English more approachable to the youngsters out there, we need not concede common sense. It is precisely that linguistic function within it that justifies trends like using literally as its own antonym and reinforces an already ridiculous system.