A Literally Lethal Problem

Have you come over all Lauren from The Hills, and started tragically misusing the word ‘literally’?

figuratively language literally misunderstandings political correctness south london spelling

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a considerably fussy person: I don’t crumple my nose whenever I hear my friends partake in the use of South London slang; I’ve never suffered a systematic breakdown as a result of hearing something ‘politically incorrect’; nor do I ever feel a compulsion to correct people’s (outrageous) spelling mistakes on Facebook wall posts. Nevertheless, I am highly sensitive about one thing, and it is an appalling problem which must be consulted immediately.

The overuse and exploitation of the word ‘literally’ is something we only expect from spoilt misguided Californian girls dominating the stage on MTV reality shows. How many times have we heard a flustered Brit tell Ashley that she is ‘literally going to die right now’? While it is widely acknowledged that Brit isn’t actually going to explode into a plethora of blood, guts and surgically ingrained breast implants, apparently that’s not the point. The point is, poor little Brit is rather upset.

Literally... 'The Hills'

Okay, so Brit just experienced a pretty traumatic ordeal; but by golly, that should NOT mean that hyperbole should come at the expense of the total misuse of a fully functional English word.

Unfortunately, it’s not only Brit who has sacrificed accuracy for drama. The virus has spread, slipping unwarrantedly into our vocabulary like verbal diarrhoea. I often find myself listening in agony and despair to bright educated students catching onto this contagious and destructive habit. A few days ago as I hurried late for lectures through the Sidgwick site, I couldn’t help but listen when one girl exclaimed to the other “I swear – they are literally inseparable!” So, what exactly did this mean? Was she referring to a couple of conjoined twins engaged in incestual relations? Or perhaps she was describing a couple of students who had fallen so madly in love that they decided to go through an inconvenient surgical process in order to join themselves at the hips?

The word ‘literally’ has taken on a new meaning. Although unacknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary, the word is now heavily exploited in an attempt to exaggerate a point. This is wrong and you all know it. The correct word for such cases is ‘figuratively’. To be figurative about something is to make a figure of speech, which in essence is what we are constantly doing all the time.

Is it too much to ask to swap ‘literally’ for ‘figuratively’ in our everyday verbal exchanges? ‘Oh my God, I figuratively just went through hell and back!’; ‘Oh no, I figuratively cannot handle this right now’; ‘Ah! I am figuratively going to die from hunger!’ Try saying it aloud yourself; personally, I love how the word elegantly flows off my tongue like a cascade of slippery jelly.

If you aren’t persuaded by this argument, perhaps you will have second thoughts if I told you that the continuance of such a habit could in fact be detrimental to our health. Indeed, people’s lives may even be at stake. It might not have occurred as of yet, but what if some angry little brat tells his father that he will ‘literally’ throw himself off a ten-storey building if his father doesn’t ‘literally’ kill himself first? Who knows – the poor well-meaning dad might actually pop a cap in his own skull. We wouldn’t want that now, would we? However, if we all became accustomed to saying ‘figuratively’ instead, we will avoid such misunderstandings and the future of gullible self-sacrificing altruists shall be salvaged.

The misuse and mindless exploitation of the world ‘literally’ is potentially tragic, and a real hazard to our society. We simply cannot allow this phenomenon to continue – people’s lives are at stake – and if that means introducing strict legislation to monitor this problem, then so be it.

And I mean this, literally.