I Am “Literally” Sick of These Words

At the Guardian, a host of writers and thinkers have submitted words and phrases that they think, due to overuse and misuse, need to be retired.  Among them, “thinking outside the box,” “awesome,” and, my favorite:

James Geary
Word or phrase: “Literally”

Why? One of the great testaments to the power of metaphor, and the malleability of language, is the metaphorical use of the word “literally”. My kids do this all the time: There were “literally” a million people there, or I “literally” died I was so scared. When people use literally in this way, they mean it metaphorically, of course. It’s a worn-out word, though, because it prevents people from thinking up a fresh metaphor for whatever it is they want to describe. And that’s a shame, because the word literal is actually a beautiful and evocative metaphor in itself. It is derived from the Latin verb linire, meaning “to smear”, and was transferred to litera (letter) when authors began smearing words on parchment instead of carving them into wood or stone. The roots of linire are also visible in the word “liniment,” a salve or ointment. Thus, the literal meaning of “literal” is to smear or spread, a fitting metaphor for the way metaphor oozes over rigid linguistic borders.

If I were to contribute, I’d submit “unbelievable,” a word that means, obviously, that something cannot be believed.  And yet, it seems that I cannot watch a single sporting event or that mundanizer of all things wonderful, ESPN’s SportsCenter (a show that I have come to despise), without hearing multiple iterations thereof: “And he makes an unbelievable grab” intones the host, on play #7 of the nightly Top Ten Plays, over a video of a multi-millionaire athlete who makes a similar catch at least once per week.  That said athlete has made such a play is, I submit, entirely believable.

HT: Bob Carlton

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  • Patrick Marshall

    So the word “literal” reflects the shift from carving on wood/stone to writing on paper. I guess in that sense, Tony, you DO view the Bible as literal!

  • Please, someone, anyone, save me from “totally.” I was so totally excited! I’m so totally there! I was totally into that song just now, you totally couldn’t get my attention!

    It literally makes me want to punch myself in the face. Especially when I totally say it.

  • MC

    Reminds me of this comic: http://xkcd.com/725/

  • But, Tony I literally think it’s awesome that we can think outside the box!!

  • Sam

    This post was amazing!

  • Bizzy Bender

    my least favorite overused expression is: I’m just sayin’

  • Rick

    It is what it is…

  • Bronwyn

    Really? 😉

  • Tom

    Anyone who can bear watch 5 minutes of Sportscenter will hear all kinds of, um, “unbelieveable” comments by dim-witted sportscasters. ESPN really attracts the least imaginative and cliche-ridden “talent” that exists in the sports world. I like to watch sports, but Sportscenter “literally” turns my stomach.

  • JoeyS

    Although, I do appreciate when SC folks quote Tenacious D, “That’s levitation homes!”

    Worn out word I would like to see the end of: epic.

    Not that “epic” isn’t a great word. It is, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore.

  • Dan Hauge

    There was a time earlier this year when I felt like emergents I know were calling “beautiful” every single thing that they liked (‘that conference was a beautiful expression!’) but they seemed to have calmed down lately, so I’ll back down.

  • The Misfit Toy

    Can I nominate “on the ground”