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Mourning a word’s death: RIP ‘literally’ (1533–2006)

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My cherished brethren, I write today to announce and commemorate a tragic passing in the astonishingly large family of the English language. The loss of “literally” will be deeply mourned by all humanities majors, linguists, and users of English (which includes you, grieving reader).

Perhaps deprived most by this untimely passing are whiny students who love to lament the tribulations of college life, waxing hyperbolic at every turn and exhausting our poor word to death.

“Literally” was born in 1533, though many of us would not have recognized it back then. In its infancy, our dear deceased friend was spelled literalye. Over time, its body grew and changed in many exciting but baffling ways. Its various spellings included litterallie and litt’rally before it settled permanently into its final form: a prepossessing four syllables with the darling parallelism of those three “l”s, capped off with a graceful “y.”

There was a time when “literally” was a rare and potent term. It was invoked only to signal the gravest departure from metaphor or exaggeration. In 1839, Miss Mary Russell Mitford wrote in a letter that “at the last I was incapable of correcting the proofs, literally fainting on the ground.” In other words, she genuinely lost consciousness and as a result fell down.

Presumably, Miss Mitford came to momentarily. The fate of the uncorrected proofs is ominously unknown.

Compare that to the unfortunate utterance I overheard just last week, while strolling alongside Purnell. A young lady bewailed a looming assignment: “I can’t write this paper. If I don’t get an extension I will literally tear my head off.”

I daren’t impugn the stress this assignment was causing the young lady, though I submit that a human being cannot, under any earthly circumstances or fits of audacity, tear off his or her own head.

The young lady blundered in tagging an obviously figurative statement with the word “literally.” She could have quite correctly said “I will figuratively tear my head off,” or maybe “I will literally be up all night writing it.” Unfortunately, she traded an irreplaceable piece of the word’s soul for a brief hyperbolic rush. Therein is poor “literally” ’s ignominious epitaph. For shame.

Rarity is the essence of value. Words have power only so long as they are unique and memorable. Overuse is their destruction; overuse is the essence of cliché.

We were warned of the impending demise of “literally” more than 80 years ago. Emilie Rose Macaulay pointed out the folly of the word’s misuse in 1922, when she was baffled by people who thought “that ‘literally’ bears the same meaning as ‘metaphorically’ (‘she was literally a mother to him,’ they will say).” Tragically, Macaulay was a linguistic Cassandra.

Let “literally” be counted a martyr in the struggle for proper English usage. Let it serve as sober warning to other overused words. “Random” is perilously close to becoming colloquially synonymous with “unexpected” or “unprecedented,” when in its heart it is “unsystematic.”

That which we call a rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but that which we term a definition in any other usage reeks of idiocy. English is a living language, and we should not resist its maturation. But its changes must always refine — never confuse or pollute.

We bid “literally” farewell, knowing that it has gone to a better place, to the great big dictionary in the sky.