Here at Language Link, we believe that language matters and in our opinion, language matters now more than ever. So if you have a quick moment to spare, then please lend us your ear…..
If you don’t mind, I really need to have a quick word with you about a word. We use this word frequently but we literally cannot use the word correctly anymore. Some say that we have forgotten the word’s true meaning and they bemoan what they perceive to be an unforgivable corruption of language. Others say that the word’s meaning has simply changed over time and they laud the mutability of meaning on the grounds that it demonstrates how languages are ‘alive’ and in process. So, I really need to have a quick word with you about the meaning, or lack thereof, of this particular word. Of course, the word of which I speak is literally the word ‘literally’.
Originally the word ‘literally’ meant ‘in a literal way or sense’ but now the word is oftentimes used to simply stress or intensify a point or statement, even if the point or statement is literally untrue or inaccurate. ‘I was so busy today; I literally didn’t have time to breathe.’ ‘I literally died when I saw my ex out with her new flame’. And so on. And so on.
So then, has the adverb ‘literally’ literally transformed into a simple intensifier? And if so, why does this annoy us to the extent that it does? For example, people regularly misuse the word ‘actually’ in precisely the same way as the word ‘literally’ but this particular abuse of language doesn’t irk us to the same degree. Actually, strike that: the misuse of the word ‘actually’ is literally as bad as the misuse of the word ‘literally’! And it’s literally shocking to think that our lovely language has actually come to this! Oh wait, I seem to be giving myself a headache now.
And then the penny finally drops. My friends, the problem is not that people insist on transforming the meanings of words. The problem is rather that people insist on using particular words as crutches any time they are tasked with concatenating phrases so as to ….. you know, give themselves a little bit of time to, like, think of something interesting or, you know, meaningful to say, but these crutch words have now become, like, literally the most annoying thing about, erm, actually having to listen to language users. You know, like, the misuse of ‘actually’ and ‘literally’ is literally the worst thing to have happened in, like, the history of happenings, precisely because, you know, it demonstrates the extent to which the architects of, erm, language can become, like, its slaves. You know what I mean ….?
Yes of course we know what you mean! We just don’t want to be asked if we do quite so often… And that’s the point, isn’t it? We all need crutch words and phrases to help us to communicate our thoughts to our fellows but our overuse of these crutch words actually, literally threatens to reduce the art of conversation to unlistenable gobbledygook.
So, by all means, continue to use crutch words my friends but please use them sparingly for the sake of your listeners.
Thank you for, like, listening.
Mr. Word Smith.