What follows is not an attempt at grammar Nazism, even though the first thing that pops up when you google the word “literally” is a definition that includes the words, “not literally.”
Right. So “It literally threw me for a loop” and “I literally went apeshit” (which I can’t even picture) are correct, according to the google dictionary. But, as I said, not a grammar Nazi rant. For three reasons.
1. Another “literally” search result is a humbling Slate article written by OED editor Jesse Sheildlower, who points out that literally’s literal definition is “according to the letter.” So extending its meaning to “by the word” is already a step away from the original sense. “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.”
2. Sheildlower also rattles off several quotations from classic literature that sound less like Joyce, Twain, and Fitzgerald and more like…I was going to say “a junior high girl’s tweets,” but that would be totally unfair. “Literally” knows no age or gender. It is almost universal, like herpes. Anyway, the quotations reminded me of a line from Ulysses: the one where Molly Bloom praises a man’s “base barrel tone voice.” By mangling a couple of obvious words, she comes up with a much more vivid description: “He has legs like barrels and you’d think he was singing into a barrel. Now, isn’t that wit.”
So maybe that helps to explain the first line of Joyce's story, “The Dead”: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Unless it's some kind of deconstructionist bluff, my best guess is that Joyce was thinking of “literally” along the lines of “literature-like,” i.e. using the imaginative devices of fiction.
3. Defending grammar is like attacking hipsters: the speaker always loses. The hypocrisy is built-in; there’s no such thing as perfect grammar, and fixating on speech flaws—no matter how rampant, no matter how often “literally” is accompanied by “like,” doubling its grammocidal power—suggests that your priorities are seriously mislaid…mislain? Fuck!
All this reminds me of a line from the Sedaris story “I Like Guys,” when the mean kid tries to humiliate the narrator by holding up a sign bearing the words that give the story its title: “He might as well have hoisted a glistening turd, shouting, ‘Look what he did!’”
Let this be the first day I don’t cringe every time I hear that word. Yes, and starting today I won’t want to curl up on the floor every time someone details the parameters of her (no, “their”—no wait, “Vs!”) pescatarian diet. Life’s too short.
Perhaps my small leap of faith will help to turn the tide on this raging epidemic. And I mean that mess of metaphors literally, as in “not literally."
Image: Cathy Guisewite / thegloss.com