If Something’s ‘Literally’ On Fire, There Must Be Flames
It’s literally one of the most overused words ever. Literally. And beyond the overuse, it’s often used incorrectly to boot! Let’s clarify what literally does and doesn’t mean.
On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt was at his second home in Warm Springs, Georgia posing for a portrait. His health had rapidly deteriorated during his dozen years in the White House. Doctors were concerned about his hypertension.
At some point, he said, “I have a terrific headache,” and moments later, he collapsed and later died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Terrific is one of those words that has changed meaning over the years. It used to mean “tremendous” with a connotation of being “terrible” or “terrifying.” Over the years, terrific came to take on a positive connotation.
Someone with what Roosevelt called a “terrific headache” today would be more likely to describe it as a “terrible headache.”
I bring up this story as an example of a word that, over time, has reversed its meaning.
At this distance, it’s very unlikely we’ll ever convert terrific back to its negative meaning.
On the other hand, maybe avoiding the incorrect usage of literally can save it from such a strange reversal.
I was flipping through the channels the other day while I was having lunch, and I managed to catch just enough of a daytime television talk show to hear a gossipmonger who was talking about some new buzz regarding a celebrity I’d never heard of say this:
“The internet is literally on fire over….”
I don’t remember what the internet was “literally” on fire over, so I’m sorry to tell you I can’t finish the quote.
But the subject of the intense scrutiny wasn’t the point. It was the description of the scrutiny that was the problem in that little sentence.
For the internet to literally be on fire, it would mean that the computers, servers and cabling that get the internet from Point A to your computer would have to be burning.
Yes, literally is one of those words that is so clear and self-explanatory that we mere mortals were practically certain to screw it up.
Literally means “in a literal manner or sense,” or “exactly.”
But literally has developed an informal meaning thanks to people who have no idea what they’re doing with the English language. These people have turned — or at least, have tried to turn the meaning of the word on its head.
For them, the informal meaning of literally is intended to add emphasis to a word that is not literally true. In other words, the informal meaning of literally is “figuratively,” which just so happens to be the opposite of literally.
There ought to be a law, I tell you!
If you use the word literally, make sure you’re using it to describe something that is actually true; if it isn’t, figuratively is a better choice. Even better than that: just drop literally altogether and say it in such a way as to stress the hyperbole in what you are saying.