February 3rd, 2011 / 12:21 pm

I’m literally making things up.

Every once in a while, I fixate on word usage and hatch wild theories about why a certain word or phrase becomes trendy in conversation. We’re all aware, I presume, of the privileged place “literally” has achieved in our lexicon. It is used most often, it seems, to denote emphasis. I’m not the only one interested in its abuse/overuse. But, like a 70-year-old tweed-clad professor with a pipe and a penchant for pretty coeds, I’m curious about what its popularity might suggest about “the times.” Maybe we are entrenched in an Age of Hyperbole, where everything must be biggened and baddened in order to be heard or believed (see Fox News, etc.). Maybe “literally” signifies some kernel of steadfast truth amidst all of that shouting, a counterpoint to the sensationalism. Or perhaps “literally” is a response to the Age of Irony for the same reasons, where we intend it to denote sincerity. Since my guess is that we’re in the twilight of that age, and are now seeing the quick waning of its companion age, Post-Irony, my hope is that we’ll hear a lot less “literally” and a lot more good, dramatic pause.

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  1. Kristen Iskandrian

      “I literally woke up at 5:00am.” –> We have a modifier problem here, too. Literally waking up, as opposed to…? And if the main idea is the earliness of the hour, then “literally” is a stand-in for another phrase.

  2. deadgod

      I think the emphasizing in the case of “literally” is hyperbole, rather than being a sincerity-lamp in a Murk of Irony. Or perhaps, to me, the sincerity one emphasizes is a kind of hyperbole: “I really, really woke up at 5 am. Often people say so, to deceive, exaggerate, or tease, but, now, the statement is True.”

      Amend the placement of the adverb (so it emphasizes what one wants emphasized): “I woke up at, literally, ‘5 am’.” or “Literally, I woke up at 5 am.” – so what’s signposted “literally” is to be taken ‘exactly as said’.

      “I’m literally being metaphorical.” – that’s a good trick. I guess you’d have to put the ‘whole’ verb together: “I literally am being metaphorical.”, or put the whole sentence together: “Literally, I’m being metaphorical.”

      “I, literally, am making things up.”: ‘I, exactly as I’m about to say, am making things up.” ??

      What’s wrong with tweed and co-eds? – a predator can’t even leave the house without being Datelined??

  3. Lig

      i like tweed

  4. Rev. Matthew Otus Benak

      I noticed a rise in the use of the word ‘plethora’ a few years back. It seemed to be one of those ‘reach words,’ or words that a person tries to incorporate into their vocabulary to signify intelligence or schooling or whatever else. What was most curious to me was that almost all uses that I came across in popular culture or daily life seemed to suggest that the word meant ‘a great quantity of something’ rather than it’s accepted usage, ‘an excess of something.’ It got me wondering about what hypothetically could have brought this about, and whether we’ve reached a cultural stage where one human, through force of his celebrity, could actually change the usage of a word in language. But one of the hallmarks of Saussure’s linguistics is that no one person can change the rules of the grammar game. Aaaaahhhh?

  5. zusya

      i’m figuratively waking up all the time. all of it, can’t be helped!