Subject: Literally mortified
In the July 21, 2009, Tip of the Week, I picked on the writer of a New York Times article (or her editor), pointing out a repeated error in apostrophe use.
In that same article (“Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley”), I spotted something else. Not an error in the reporter’s text, but one in the speech of the publicist who was being quoted, Brooke Hammerling.
Here’s the relevant passage:
“There are no stars in P.R.,” she says one boss told her — the job should be about behind-the-scenes teamwork, not individual personalities. “That literally hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. She quit.
Did you spot what I did? It’s the use of the word literally to intensify an idiom that is patently not literal.
Now, I realize that this was a spoken use, but it’s widespread in texts as well. I once edited a manuscript in which literally was used so often simply for emphasis that I used the Find feature in Word to catch and correct all 54 instances. My favorite? “I literally died.”
The use of literally merely for emphasis is one that even Patricia T. O’Conner and Stuart Kellerman, in their recently published book Origins of the Specious, cannot endorse — even though they skewer many other “Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.” But the authors do note (thanks to help from the OED) that the emphatic use has a history. They quote Louisa May Alcott: “The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions.”
I’ve been thinking stray thoughts about the emphatic use. One is this: An English teacher of mine urged us to replace literally with truly if we wanted to be emphatic. But how different, really, is “literally flowed with milk and honey” from “truly flowed with milk and honey”—semantically, anyway? The land didn’t truly flow any more than it literally flowed.
That leads to the next thought: Is there a difference between the emphatic use with an idiom, and the emphatic use that’s just annoyingly breathless? In other words, is there a way to justify “It literally hit me like a ton of bricks” but not allow “I literally died”?
The argument would go something like this: “It hit me like a ton of bricks” is an abstraction for “It dumbfounded me.” If literally has been used as an intensifier by Dryden, Dickens, Twain, Thackeray, and others (according to Origins of the Specious), couldn’t we allow its use as an intensifier when really just isn’t strong enough? It seems that the use could be glossed as “It really and truly did this abstract thing to me.”
But then my author’s use of died was figurative, too: it meant “It embarrassed me to death.” (Isn’t that what the word mortified is for?)
I think I’m going to have to give up, and like O’Conner and Kellerman, say that you can go ahead and use literally as an intensifier if you want to. But I, for one, would be mortified to do so.
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