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:
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