Do people literally mean figuratively?

Do people literally mean figuratively?

Word Talk by Connie, the Cunning Linguist


Do I literally hear people misusing this adverb like literally every GD day? Or are they literally being super clever?

Did you know there is a bar in New York where they will throw you out if you use the word literally — even if you use it correctly. They will literally throw you out into the street for using that word. Woops. My bad. I meant to say they will figuratively, idiomatically and metaphorically throw you out into the street. The one thing they literally won’t do, it turns out, is literally throw your body onto the asphalt, as there are serious liability consequences for business owners who do that.

However, it must be said, in contemporary Americanese — and language is a living breathing organism, after all, not something written in stone or in a book — the word “literally” has come to mean its opposite.

And in a way, I see the logic.

It is a form of exaggeration. “I am literally burning in here,” if the car heater is too hot and the driver won’t turn it down. Of course, you exaggerate, in an effort to get him to see the gravity of this heat situation. If you said, more accurately, I feel like I’m burning up in here, or I am figuratively on fire, or this really sucks, dude, it just wouldn’t have the same effect.

Literally, it turns out, means “no kidding!” even though you are kidding.

It is what is known by linguists as a paradoxical ironic oxymoron lit by a lantern hanging on another lantern.

It’s also an extremely sophisticated and stylized form of humor — uncharacteristic of the usually quite wet American funny bone. In the traditional Noh theatre of Japan, it is described as the mask within the mask, or the Otoko.

I am literally dying of laughter right now because some of you might actually go to google to find out if that is a real linguistic term, if there is such a thing as an Otoko mask, or if this whole thing isn’t literally part of a scam, sales funnel or clickbait trap that you’ve fallen into.

In all seriousness, the sophistication arises from the meta-commentary implicit in any ironic use of “literally”. Meta-commentary means comment about the way you are commenting. Thus, your attempt to misdirect the listener into taking you more seriously than perhaps is warranted, is actually quite awesome — to use an everyday term.

So any pseudo-intellectual who pompously points out that you’ve misused the word literally should literally be poked in the eye, because you haven’t.

You’ve just been perhaps a little too clever for your current group of friends. Don’t worry, you will find your people.

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