Literally and Figuratively
Somehow those two little words have gotten no end of attention in the past few years, and while I’m sure the debate has raged for far longer, the internet has that wonderful, amplified echo chamber effect that makes even the most minuscule arguments seem like epic holy wars. And really, that’s what it is; it’s an argument grounded in personal belief, no matter how much we want it to be a matter of objective truth.
This perceived misuse of “literally” remains a bugbear for me. I can’t help it. I recognize, though, that a lot of things that irk me have nothing to do with their validity. For example, the word “addicting” as an adjective sets my teeth on edge. Now, there’s a whole other can of worms that can be opened up there, but really, “addictive” and “addicting” are more or less interchangeable, and have been since at least the 30’s. My distaste for the latter really boils down to nothing more than “it sounds wrong to me”, and really, that’s fine. Acknowledge it, and move on.
Still, I’d convinced myself that my crusade against “literally” was a just one. A word that can have two diametrically opposite definitions, I argued, serves as an explicit barrier to understanding, and as such, undermines the very purpose of language. Really, though, that’s essentially shorthand for “look at me, I’m smarter than you. I mean, look what big words I used!” I don’t think any reasonable human being ever found themselves confused when someone said to them, “I worked literally a million hours last week.” It’s unmistakeable hyperbole, and to argue otherwise is to be disingenuous in the service of our bourgeois ideal of what language “should” be.
The Lexicon Valley podcast actually had a great conversation on the subject a while back, and pointed out that the use of literally as a hyperbolic device goes back more than a century. And really, that makes sense when you think about it. The whole point of hyperbole is to intentionally misuse language for comedic exaggeration. So I’m brought back to my original question: why does it bother me as much as it does?
Consider the following three sentences:
“That song is so awful that my ears are bleeding.”
“That song is so awful that my ears are literally bleeding.”
“That song is so awful that my ears are figuratively bleeding.”
Of the three, only the last is, strictly speaking, true. It’s also the one that is the least useful. Using the word “figuratively” here is the metaphorical equivalent of having to explain the punchline of a joke; if you have to point it out, it kind of defeats the purpose of going to the trouble. However devout I may be in my jihad against “literally”, even I have to grant that a useless word is worse than a “wrong” one. The real question is, does the second sentence give us anything the first one doesn’t?
Of course it does. In this case, “literally” is being invoked for emphasis. When you’re already being hyperbolic, your options for added emphasis are limited. One tactic is to add an adverb:
“That song is so fucking awful that my ears are bleeding.”
My go-to, of course, is to compound colorful metaphors like so:
“That song is so fucking awful that my ears are bleeding and my pants have filled with shit.”
Clearly, my preference goes to whatever lets me work poop into the conversation. Such is my wont. Still, I’m no closer to figuring out just why that second sentence bothers me as much as it does. It was finally Harlan Ellison, the patron saint of curmudgeonly bastards himself, the gave me some insight.
In the bio-doc Dreams with Sharp Teeth, there’s a scene in which Ellison signs a fan’s book, and in turn the fan says, “Awesome!” Ellison’s response was this:
“No no no, ‘awesome’ would be Grand Canyon. ‘Awesome’ is the Greater Magellanic Cloud. A cheese quesadilla and my signature are not ‘awesome’. Would you use the word properly? Your mother brought you up right, you went to college, you read a book a week or more…”
It’s a throwaway interjection in the film, but it stuck with me. It stuck because I realized I have none of the ideological fervor for the perceived misuse of “awesome” that I do for “literally”. If I think about it, it makes perfect sense. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, a time where surfer slang, the Ninja Turtles, and Nintendo’s constant insistence that I “play it loud” (whatever the fuck that means) managed to turn words like “awesome” and “radical” into soulless synonyms for “pretty good”. By the time I reached an age where I actually started caring about this shit, I’d already been desensitized.
Really though, while the comparison of mesmerizing outer space phenomena to a melting hunk of cheese and tortilla is an amusing way to highlight how overusing words cheapens their impact, it’s that last bit of the quote that speaks to what I’m searching for. I’m left to infer that while Harlan would certainly not miss an opportunity to scold anyone for such nonchalance, it’s the fact that his fan should know better that really sets him off. To misuse a word because that’s the only use you know is to be ignorant. To misuse a word as a lazy shorthand is to take part in perpetuating that ignorance. He sums this idea up more succinctly than I can:
” …you are not entitled to your opinion; you’re entitled to your informed opinion.”
Finally, I have something I can work with. I realized that my problem isn’t that people use “literally” for exaggerated impact, but that this use seems to have supplanted the word’s original definition. It’s that I can conceive of people using the word to punctuate their metaphors without even realizing that’s what they’re doing, or even that it can be used to separate the metaphorical from the objective. Language is alive, and the meanings of words have always and will always evolve. Language is also a zero sum game — for every word or definition we gain, the one we might have used instead is lost. Which ones stay and which ones go is ultimately at the mercy of the collective consciousness; no individual gets to make that call. But that’s not to say words don’t need their defenders. We may be a hoard of miserable pedants, but we’re the necessary obstacle that stands in the way of the new. Language needs to evolve, sure, but it needs to get past us first.
So fuck you, I’m still going to correct your dumb ass.
I’ve never been able to reach a conclusion and just leave well enough alone. In thinking about this, I remember my mother telling me many times, over the course of her career as an English teacher, that her kids had a hard time understanding metaphor.
Of course, this is ludicrous. Everyone understands metaphor. A four-year-old that says “RAWR! I’m a dinosaur!” understands metaphor. They just don’t recognize the metalinguistic concept of a metaphor. When I think back on how the subject was presented to me in school, I wonder how in the hell I ever managed to figure it out.
You remember that chapter in your grade school textbook, right? “Simile and Metaphor”? Why the fuck are we taught it this way? The framing presents two concepts at the opposite end of a spectrum, where in reality simile is just an example of a type of metaphor. And it strikes me as a completely arbitrary one, and confusing to someone you’re trying to teach the basic concept to. What the fuck difference does a “like” or “as” make? Is “her lips were like wine” highlighting a significantly different concept than “Juliet is the east”?! I can teach a computer to understand the only real distinction there. In what way does this enhance a child’s understanding of the concept?
I have a new syllabus. It’s called “Allegory and Metaphor”. Instead of a sheet of useless phrases, which require no comprehension beyond identifying the letters L-I-K-E in the proper order, my “worksheet” will contain the entire text of Animal Farm, as well as a half dozen historical essays about the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin. At the bottom of the last page, will be a single question: Is this an allegory or a metaphor? Half credit for either answer. Full credit for “Fuck you, they’re not mutually exclusive concepts you goddamn hack.”