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24 October 2009

Literally, Virtually, Figuratively Fuhgeddaboudit

A while ago, I had heard the airing of a letter to an NPR program that complained about people misusing the word "literally" and that the anchor of the show (I forget the details, although I want to say it was regarding Scott Simon of Weekend Edition Saturday, but I won't) did not help matters when he too said something like, "Hearing that literally struck terror in my heart."

Larry says we must first explain what to use instead. What's the opposite of "literally?" Figuratively. Tell them what the definition of "figuratively" is. In Carolynspeak, it means, "in a figure of speech..." Then, I thought, no one says, "Hearing that figuratively struck terror in my heart." No, he would say, "Hearing that struck terror in my heart." No "literally" and no "figuratively," because "struck terror in my heart" is already a figure of speech. It suddenly struck me (figuratively): "Literally" is being used as emphasis. It really, really, really did strike terror in my heart -- no ifs, ands or buts about it. I consulted with The American Heritage College dic-tion-ar-y (Fourth Edition) and here, I was confirmed: definition 3b of lit-er-al-ly = "Used as an intensive before a figurative expression." And, I thought, welcome to the 21st century, where language along with civil society has been going to hell in a handbasket for over twenty centuries, while those advocates of living language say, "Fuhgeddaboudit." And, then, right after definition 3b between lines in grey background (as if in intensiveness) is a
USAGE NOTE: For more than a hundred years critics have objected to the use of literally with figurative or hyperbolic expressions, as in It's literally roasting in here. The critics maintain that in such constuctions literally is used to mean the exact opposite of its primary sense, "in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words." While this looser use of the word as an intensive to mean "without exaggeration" may be infelicitous, it cannot be said to be incorrect. It can lead, however, to inadvertent comic effect when used together with an idiomatic expression that has its source in a frozen figure of speech, as in I literally died laughing.
Wow! I will merely say that a professional (dictionary definition) writer can certainly articulate the controversy better than I! In Carolynspeak, he said that not only is this use for emphasis not incorrect (at least not since the early 20th century), but it could still be ridiculed -- a "So, there!" for both sides!

Well, then, there's something I heard just the other evening from a business CD on economic trends. They were speaking of the "new normal" in which they first had to describe the "old normal" in order to present how it changed. One factor is globalization as well as technology. With cellular, satellite, etc technology, a person can "literally be in three, four, even five places at one time." He can? If so, I think the cellular technology would be human gene cloning, not SSID.

Again, it was for emphasis, although whether that emphasis was needed or not becomes the issue. I searched my brain for another, maybe more proper, word. Would "virtually" work? Again to the dictionary. But, given the old fashioned, maybe 19th century, definition of "virtual" is not what people who were born in the last forty years (a group which does not include myself) or have read science fiction from this period, perhaps no. But lo and behold, virtual means what it always has meant and what it continues to mean: 1) In fact or to all purposes; practically, and/or 2) Almost but not quite; nearly. And, I think that makes "virtually" the best word, because of that double meaning -- the 15th century as well as the 21st century ones.

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