The adverb as a form of litter

Tony Woodlief has literally had it up to here [oh, if only I had an embeddable video for this, to show you precisely where “here” is] with this particular misconstruction:

“Literally” doesn’t mean “really.” It’s not a word that you put in front of some other words to show that, unlike the rest of your lackluster sentence, this is the part you really totally completely, like, absolutely mean. And it doesn’t mean figuratively, or metaphorically. “Literally” means that it actually happened.

So if you tell me that you’re “literally going to hijack this meeting,” I’m liable to go all Jet Li on you. If you tell me that viewers of the latest Star Trek movie “quite literally get to pick up the very end of a new thread,” I’m going to imagine dorks in fake Spock ears crawling about the theater floor in search of a string. If you write that the Columbine murderers “literally put a scar across the American Flag,” I’m going to suggest that this is the least of their crimes. If you declare in your headline: “USA Today fights for its life, literally,” I’m going to insist that unless the newspaper’s representatives are in fact in a deathmatch, you are mistaken.

Me, I’d like to see someone go all Jet Li on USA Today. And dorks in fake Spock ears are running about eight and a third cents each these days. Which may or may not explain this:

Our words have entered the realm of fast food. They don’t offer much in the way of nutritional value, and so we dream up ways to enhance a flimsy burger by giving it extra-hot jalapeno cheese. We don’t just say, “I was frightened.” We say, “I was totally, like, so, so frightened.” For the love, people. Buy a freaking thesaurus. Literally.

Future tweet: OMG the thesaurus is starting to freak!

Now if someone would just explain to me how “peruse,” which used to mean “to examine or consider with attention and in detail” [Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 8th edition, 1981], came to mean simply “read.”


  1. fillyjonk »

    21 April 2009 · 10:53 am

    I admit to being guilty of this one. I tend to use “literally” as an intensifier.

    In my defense, there is another intensifier that I am choosing not to use, one that my students often use, beginning with an f and ending with an -ing.

  2. Lisa Paul »

    21 April 2009 · 1:10 pm

    I am so, so, like, totally f*cking OVER this sort of grammatical crime. Literally.

  3. McGehee »

    21 April 2009 · 1:21 pm

    I’m favoring a literal death penalty for people who use “decimate” to mean “devastate” or “annihilate” or even just “really trashed.”

    Here’s a hint offered directly and exclusively to people who misuse that word: if every single one of you gets put to death, you’re not being “decimated.” Trust me, I wouldn’t leave 90% of you alive in hopes you’d learn from the example of the other 10% — you obviously aren’t capable of it.


  4. sya »

    21 April 2009 · 4:17 pm

    Semantic laziness or linguistic evolution? As long as it doesn’t appear that we’re heading toward a version of the chicken-chicken-chicken scenario, I think I’d prefer the latter explanation. I’ve been berated enough times about my speech habits that I’ll take any reason to not feel like a verbal incompetent.

  5. CGHill »

    21 April 2009 · 4:53 pm

    In terms of linguistic evolution, I find it easier to deal with grammatical rules being set aside — God forbid anyone should call an emergency meeting of the Grammar Patrol just because someone decided to baldly split an infinitive — than with words whose meanings have been completely, perhaps even “literally,” reversed without any intervening drift.

  6. Tatyana »

    21 April 2009 · 6:17 pm

    I’ve had an excruciatingly long and full of barely-conceived-contempt with a professional linguist from Israel of the topic of linguistic evolution. Namely, he claimed that the word “tramp”, which when used in Israel means “car ride”, was not mistranslated (and gotten an opposite meaning to original English word), but is a neologism [in Hebrew] of foreign origin, with new meaning that evolved according to local conditions.
    I gave up on the third loop of the same argument…

  7. McGehee »

    21 April 2009 · 7:16 pm

    Most Americans think of “tramp” as a synonym for a bum or hobo, which is a slang application derived from its prior meaning — though these days most people think of tramps as riding in boxcars or hitchhiking along the highway rather than treading or walking with a firm, heavy, resounding step.

    Tat, I suspect that odd usage of “tramp” in Israel is likewise just slang — which would nevertheless mean that professor is every bit as full of carp as you thought.

  8. Tatyana »

    21 April 2009 · 8:23 pm

    McG: yeas, it is kind of slang, of the sort like denim fabric is called “jean fabric”. Examples of usage: ” I need a tramp to Haifa for tomorrow afternoon. Know of somebody available?”
    When I read it, I couldn’t believe my eyes

  9. Mark Alger »

    21 April 2009 · 10:22 pm

    All matters of ignorance. You could say said ignorance has been foisted on society by progressives in the education establishment (and you’d not be far wrong). Yes, it’s true: they don’t make teachers like they used to. More’s the pity.

    BTW, Chaz: bum, tramp, and hobo all have separate and distinct meanings. Just call a bindlestiff and tramp and see where it gets you. Call either a tramp or a ‘bo a bum and the LEAST you’ll get is a vehement denial.

    One man’s “mere semantics” is another’s critical meaning.


  10. McGehee »

    22 April 2009 · 7:09 am

    Mark, that wasn’t Chaz making that comparison, it was me. And I said “most Americans,” which still to the best of my knowledge almost certainly excludes members of the tramp, bum, hobo and bindlestiff communities– at least until next April 15.

  11. fillyjonk »

    22 April 2009 · 9:06 am

    And there’s at least one other meaning to “tramp” these days as well.

    At least, when it prefaces, “stamp.”

  12. McGehee »

    22 April 2009 · 10:40 am

    She gets too hungry, for dinner at eight…

  13. Jeffro »

    22 April 2009 · 6:36 pm

    I don’t know what was worse – having to Google McG’s quote, or realizing I should have remembered.

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