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Literally

The late John Diamond once wrote in The Spectator about a correspondence course run by The Writers [sic]  Bureau:

Mr E H Metcalfe has written from Manchester to tell me that if I send him £189 "The world can literally be your oyster."

A test then:

  1. Does E H Metcalfe know what the word "Literally" means?
  2. Does E H Metcalfe know what an oyster looks like?
  3. What do you think are the chances of my becoming a well-paid and successful writer under Mr Metcalfe's tutelage?

Mr Metcalfe is principal of The Writers Bureau (no, I don't what's happened to the possessive apostrophe either) of Dale Street, Manchester....[P]ersevere ("The most important quality you require is not
brilliance, but perseverence" (sic) confides Mr Metcalfe) and eventually the literal thing with the oysters will start to happen.

Diamond's piece is very funny, and it is a great shame that he died at only forty-seven while many a dullard lives to a ripe old age. His mocking of the misuse of the word "literally" is the best I have seen.

But is it misuse? I have always thought so, believing that the word should be reserved for real cases rather than used for emphasis. In my piece here, I comment in passing on how "literally" has been cheapened by overuse and incorrect use. And I have always assumed that "literally" used to be used correctly, and that sloppiness has crept in recently. However, I now find that I am mistaken, and must literally eat my words. Jessie Scheidlower writes:

As is often the case, though, such "abuses" have a long and esteemed history in English. The ground was not especially sticky in Little Women when Louisa May Alcott wrote that "the land literally flowed with milk and honey," nor was Tom Sawyer turning somersaults on piles of money when Twain described him as "literally rolling in wealth," nor was Jay Gatsby shining when Fitzgerald wrote that "he literally glowed," nor were Bach and Beethoven squeezed into a fedora when Joyce wrote in Ulysses that a Mozart piece was "the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat." Such examples are easily come by, even in the works of the authors we are often told to emulate...

How did literally come to mean the opposite of what it originally meant? The earliest uses of literally were "in a literal manner; word for word" ("translated literally from Greek") and "in a literal sense; exactly" ("He didn't mean that literally").

 By the late 17th century, though, literally was being used as an intensifier for true statements. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Dryden and Pope for this sense; Jane Austen, in Sanditon, wrote of a stormy night that, "We had been literally rocked in our bed." In these examples, literally is used for the sake of emphasis alone...

Why, though, did this usage of literally suddenly come under such fire? It is not the first, nor will it be the last, instance of a word that is used in a seemingly contradictory way. There are many such words, and they arise through various means. Called "Janus words," "contranyms," or "auto-antonyms," they include cleave ("to stick to" and "to split apart"), dust ("to remove dust from" and "to sprinkle dust upon"), moot ("able to be discussed; arguable" and "purely theoretical") and peruse and scan (each meaning both "to read closely" and "to glance at hastily; skim"). Usage writers often criticize such words as potentially confusing and usually single out one of the meanings as "wrong," the "right" meaning being the older one, or the one closer to the word's etymological meaning, or the one more frequent when 18th-century grammarians began to examine language systematically. It's not always possible to predict when something will be condemned

In the case of literally, the "right" meaning is said to be "exactly as described; in a literal way," because that's what the base word literal is supposed to mean. In fact, the literal meaning of literal would be something like "according to the letter," but it's almost never used this way. "He copied the manuscript literally" would be one possible example. So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path, and if we end up with people eating curry so hot that their mouths are "literally on fire," how surprised can we be?

To think that I have been literally barking up the wrong tree for so long. One question remains:  what do you say if you really have been barking up the wrong tree, rather than just getting the wrong end of the proverbial stick?



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