• Why do we say 'literally' when we mean 'figuratively'? (Flickr)Source: Flickr
The word is 'literally' being used the wrong way.
By
Helen Razer

17 Aug 2016 - 1:48 PM  UPDATED 17 Aug 2016 - 2:23 PM

When I was small, the lies in women’s magazines were pretty big. Knowing this, my mother refused their purchase and would usually only pick one up in a doctor’s office or supermarket for teaching purposes. She would hold it in two fingertips and keep at a distance from her nose, as though it were Satan’s discarded toilet tissue, and say, “Helen. These rags do not tell the truth”.  

She was right, of course. Those old magazines said that girdles were comfortable, that men only loved quiet women and that cottage cheese was delicious, especially with pineapple. These are all great falsehoods and I am glad that the western world ceased in its most obvious attempts to shut loud women up by whacking them in girdles then stuffing them with sweet-and-savoury food combinations. But, I remain annoyed that one glossy that Mum did keep around—it told the truth about how to make béchamel sauce—still haunts me with its chilling feature: The Ugly Signs of Aging to Avoid. 

If you frown on “hip” new words and continue to use old ones, you will seem like a fuddy-duddy. 

I can’t remember all of the “advice”. There was something about how a girdle, cottage cheese and pineapple helped keep a young woman’s figure. There was some actually insane instruction about standing on your head for half an hour to overcome facial wrinkles every weekday afternoon. And then, there was something I still remember clearly: accept new trends, especially those in conversation. If you frown on “hip” new words and continue to use old ones, you will seem like a fuddy-duddy. 

Leaving aside that the magazine argued its own advice by using a 19th century word like “fuddy-duddy”, this guidance is still troubling to me. Because, damn, I know it’s true. I know that language is always a case of movement and that the dictionary is not a fixed religion. If one does not use words that large numbers of people understand, one may as well not speak. Better to shove tinned fruit and lo-cal cheese in your gob than to talk like Her Majesty, Victoria. 

But, this advice is hard to follow, especially for anyone who spent a lot of time indoors as a kid with nothing much to do but look up the word “béchamel” in the dictionary. (Hint: it’s not in the 1980 edition of the Oxford). If words in any language were your first reliable friends—and this is the case for many of us—it’s hard to watch them being abused by others. 

I ought to say that all new words and phrases are not something with which I have a problem. The term “basic bitch”, for example, defines a particular female phenomenon perfectly and even though the internet tells me that it’s “so over”, I don’t know how else to describe white-wine drinking fans of Kate Middleton’s style. I consider the term “photobomb” a useful addition to English and I am amused by the exclamations of young people, and even more amused when older people pick these up a year later. Any person over 35 who utters, “hells yeah!”, “totes” or “amazeballs” is hilarious to all of us. This is the verbal equivalent of wearing a “Christina Vs Britney” t-shirt. 

If words in any language were your first reliable friends—and this is the case for many of us—it’s hard to watch them being abused by others. 

Let language flow and evolve, I say. Let the pineapple chunks of spoken English emerge, then recede into the gutter! YOLO, and all of that. I take no issue with the emergence of new words at all. But, when it comes to the misuse of perfectly serviceable old words, I begin to show the Ugly Signs of Aging. 

This started for me with the maltreatment of the verb “infer”; which is a tedious problem I shall continue to endure in private and not bore you with here. It revved up when “irony” began to mean almost anything at all. It became official when I wrote a strong letter of protest to the Macquarie Dictionary for its unnecessary conflation of the words “sexism” and “misogyny”. 

But it has long persisted in the abuse of the word “literally”. 

Look. Yes. I know this is an unwinnable argument and that better defenders of meaning than me have already mourned its loss. Literally, which has now come to mean its opposite “figuratively”, underwent a transformation years ago. I noticed it a decade back when a colleague at a respectable newspaper had the following sentence in a review of theatre printed: “I literally split my sides laughing.” Taken literally—which is to say, without suggestion and read exactly as described—this means that the reporter had a nasty accident with her intestines.  

Literally, which has now come to mean its opposite “figuratively”, underwent a transformation years ago.

There could, I thought, be no better symptom of an illness in English when a word that means “just what I said” had come to mean “probably something very much unlike what I said”. I almost stopped arguing about it, and had a quiet funeral for the literal on my own. 

And then, last weekend, I was watching a chef make béchamel sauce on the telly. He said, “Literally pour the warm milk into the roux”. I am pretty sure he meant “liberally”, because he couldn’t have meant “metaphorically”. How do you pour milk in a way that is ANYTHING OTHER THAN LITERAL, CHEF? I screamed at the telly. 

Of course, screaming at the Food Network is an Ugly Sign of Aging to Avoid. But, I can no longer be certain that mourning the death of a perfectly decent word is a sign of anything but good sense. 

Perhaps a sign not so much of old age but of maturity is to accept the loss. And just try to cope with it by eating too much béchamel sauce. 

Just add béchamel
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