It’s Wednesday. Literally. Literally, it’s Wednesday. Which means it’s time for some more word hatred, this time from writer and lecturer Calum Kerr, who posts a piece of flash fiction every single day of the goddamn year right here.
Worst Word – by Calum Kerr
I don’t know what I’m doing here. I literally love words.
By which, of course, I mean that I send them little notes, flowers, chocolates and sex toys in the post. I ring them up in the middle of the afternoon, not because I have anything to say, simply to hear their voice. I print them out on paper and take them to bed and lie down with them and…
OK. No. I don’t. I don’t literally love words. I do love them, though – I use them every day in the stories I write, in the emails I send, in the Facebook updates I craft, on the phone ordering pizza, in shops buying pizza, in restaurants sending back under-topped pizza. I use them and I value them and I don’t know where I’d be without them. See, I’m even using them right now, and I’m being careful only to pick the best and most succulent words for you (these aren’t just words… these are WHW words…).
But, in amongst the words which drive me up the wall (‘relatable’ being my absolute bugbear, but a rather specialised one) is the word ‘literally’. Now, I know that literally some people have complained about it over literally some years, but I’m calling for an outright ban. It’s not just that it is used incorrectly more often than not. I don’t think we need this word at all.
Let’s look at it. What does it mean?
It means that something is surprisingly true according to the dictionary definition of the words it describes. It means that the topic under discussion actually, really and truly is the way it was stated.
All of which is fine. But it means much more than that. After all, if that was all it was, we could just say what we mean without it. We’re not liars, we don’t make things up, people shouldn’t expect our words to mean something other than they do. You shouldn’t have to walk around making excuses for describing the world the way you see it, should you? I mean, who do these people think they are, questioning your good name and your good intentions? Here you are, just trying to hold a civilised conversation and these people are literally driving you up the wall!
There it is…
That’s the problem with this word. It’s lost its way. It’s become an intensifier, a way to say that the thing you are describing is an extreme version of its type. But that’s not what it means. In this case it would mean that the person put you in their car and defied the law of gravity.
“I was so thirsty, I was literally spitting feathers.”
Unless you were thirsty because you ate a parrot, no you weren’t.
“I was so angry, I was literally seeing red.”
See a doctor. That sounds like burst blood vessels.
“He was, like, literally thirteen feet tall.”
Call the Guinness Book of Records. And stop using ‘like’ as well.
No, the only excuse for using the word is when something traditionally metaphorical happens.
A plane full of pets springs a leak? It’s literally raining cats and dogs.
Someone lets a large male bovine into a gift emporium? There’s literally a bull in a china shop.
Beating your head against a concrete wall? It’s literally like beating your head against a brick wall.
And on, and on.
These are the only times to use this word, but we don’t need it even then, because if the person you are talking to has half a brain (and I know there is every chance that they don’t, but let’s suppose) then they understand the joke you are making. Using the word ‘literally’ just suggests that you are unsure you have conveyed the strangeness of the situation correctly so you feel the need to add a signpost.
So, let’s get rid of this word. Literally come with me on my journey of freedom. Literally cast off your shackles and literally set yourself free!