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Using Literally Figuratively

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I have an on-going love affair with the English language. I have a vast appreciation for the many ways in which the language is spoken and written. I have great respect for those who devise clever word usages and linguistic manipulations. But in modern language there’s a particular failed attempt at such effect which is truly irritating…

The ability to use words figuratively is a powerful tool. It allows us to express complex thoughts in terms of things easier to understand (e.g. "The General embraced the idea of a cease-fire"). At times it simply makes for a great literary device (e.g. "Those boxes were so heavy that my arms are going to fall off!").

But if any statement can be meant figuratively, how can we ensure that a reader will realize a given statement is not figurative when there might be doubt? Lucky us, We have a special word just for this purpose: "literally". It is the single magic word which dispels all doubt.

Except now people are using the word "literally" figuratively! That doesn’t work. You can’t do it. "Literally" is the only word in the entire English language that you can’t take figuratively. Choose a different victim. "Literally" is an English axiom. I commonly hear statements like "he literally went ape shit" (he became gorilla feces??) and "at that point she literally just lost her head" (sounds inconvenient). These people are attempting to inject grandeur into their speech and they end up sounding like chumps.

Our words are rapidly losing meaning because of the way we abuse them. I can’t help but be reminded of 1984’s Newspeak, a language so watered down that one cannot express a logical thought.

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