Saturday, 20 August 2011

You literally take them literally

Literally gets a lot of bad press. It's a word in a state of confusion. It's busy getting a new meaning as a kind of intensifier, but it's also stubbornly hanging on to its old meaning of 'in actual fact'. (Really and actually have gone further down this road.) This allows pedants to say things like:
Really? You literally exploded with excitement? That must have caused a mess.
And so on. The Oatmeal does a good comic of it, actually. Part of it's here, but there's more of it, including the punchline, at The Oatmeal:
So, on Eight Out of Ten Cats (Channel 4) the other night (12/08/2011), I heard one of the panellists, the comedian Jon Richardson, tell a story which included two uses of the word literally.

[The footballer Wayne] Rooney said "We literally don't know when a game's over", and they're so thick you take them literally.

Both uses of literally appear in that story. First of all, Rooney says it in the new sense, using it as an intensifier. But then Jon uses it in the old sense, meaning 'at face value'. But he can't have noticed, so much have the two senses diverged, that Rooney has already used it, because it takes all the sting out of his joke. He means, 'they said this, not meaning it literally, but they're so stupid it might actually be true'. But if Rooney's already said literally, then you've got no humour in trying to take them literally unless the word has lost all of its original meaning. There's nothing very unusual in that, metaphors lose their meaning all the time and we cease to notice them, but not usually when the original sense of the word is also used in the same sentence.

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