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Literally the most misused word

The adverb clutters our speech to the point where it is in danger of losing its literal meaning

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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When “Parks and Recreation’’ co-creator Michael Schur began crafting Rob Lowe’s character for his NBC sitcom, he wanted him to be a man of extremes.

“It was referenced in an episode last year that he does 10,000 push-ups a day,’’ Schur says of the character Chris Traeger. “He lives every moment of his life to the fullest, so overusing the word ‘literally’ seemed like a good character fit. He’s the kind of guy who is always claiming that something was literally the greatest thing he’s ever seen or something is literally the most fun you could ever have. In real life, it’s something that drives me crazy, because it’s so often misused.’’

Schur isn’t the only one peeved by “literally’’ gaining popularity as both a throwaway intensifier and a replacement for “figuratively.’’ It’s a word that has been misused by everyone from fashion stylist Rachel Zoe to President Obama, and linguists predict that it will continue to be led astray from its meaning. There is a good chance the incorrect use of the word eventually will eclipse its original definition.

What the word means is “in a literal or strict sense.’’ Such as: “The novel was translated literally from the Russian.’’

“It should not be used as a synonym for actually or really,’’ writes Paul Brians in “Common Errors in English Usage.’’ “Don’t say of someone that he ‘liter ally blew up’ unless he swallows a stick of dynamite.’’

“My kids do this all the time,’’ writer and former Time magazine editor James Geary explained in the British newspaper the Guardian last month. “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.’’

Schur is able to capture some of this misuse in the ridiculousness of Lowe’s “Parks and Recreation’’ character (you can watch all of his “literally’’ moments strung together on the Internet). But while Schur can make light of “literally’’ through a sitcom, linguists and academics believe the word will soon join others that are so misused as to be past restoring.

“My impression is that many people don’t have any idea of what ‘literally’ means - or used to mean,’’ says Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist at Boston University. “So they say things like ‘He was literally insane with jealousy.’ If in response, you asked them if this person had been institutionalized, they’d look at you as if you were the crazy one. The new ‘literally’ is being used interchangeably with words such as ‘quite,’ ‘rather,’ and ‘actually.’ ’’

The debate over the misuse of the word can be traced to the 18th or 19th century (depending on whom you ask), and the abuse began gathering legitimacy by 1839, when Charles Dickens wrote in “Nicholas Nickleby’’ that a character “had literally feasted his eyes in silence on his culprit.’’

By 1909, Webster’s New International Dictionary noted the misuse according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. True scorn for the misuse of “literally’’ began to simmer by the 1920s, when lexicographer H.W. Fowler scolded that it was something “we ought to take great pains to repudiate; such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.’’

Nothing has done much to discourage incorrect usage of the word. Watch any talk show or listen to any conversation and “literally’’ will pop up as often as “like’’ or “um.’’

In the 1990s, “Mad TV’’ featured a recurring sketch of a pretentious pair who regularly employed “literally.’’ That was followed by a blog that tracked the misuse of the word, and Worcester resident Tyler Hougaboom’s Facebook page condemning it.

All this has sent word nerds into a snit.

“It does at times render the speaker ridiculous,’’ says Martha Brockenbrough, author of “Things That Make Us [Sic].’’ “Indiscriminate use of literally as an intensifier also diminishes the originality of the speaker.’’

The growth of “literally’’ also corresponds to our culture’s increasing desire for drama. Just count the number of times you hear “literally’’ on any reality show (Hello, Rachel Zoe).

“It’s no longer enough to say that ‘I was upset.’ You have to say, ‘My head was literally ready to explode,’ because it’s more dramatic,’’ says Paul Yeager, author of “Literally, the Best Language Book Ever.’’

If misuse of “literally’’ continues at the current rate, its true meaning could meet the fate of words such as “nonplussed’’ (meaning surprised and confused, but often misused as a synonym for disconcerted), or “bemuse’’ (to bewilder or puzzle, but often misused as a synonym for amuse). These are words that have been misused for so long that their original definitions have been completely distorted.

Bryan Garner, author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage,’’ has developed a scale for the five stages of misuse. Stage one is when usage mistakes crop up, but are widely rejected. By the time a word reaches the dreaded stage five, Garner writes that the incorrect definition is “truly universal, and the only people who reject it are eccentrics.’’

Garner now puts “literally’’ at stage three, which is defined as “being used by a majority of the language community.’’ However, Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, believes “literally’’ has already slipped dangerously close to stage four, which means that it has become ubiquitous and only a few diehards reject the new meaning.

“I go on a lot of talk shows, and people complain about the usual suspects,’’ Zimmer says. “It’s ‘literally’ and ‘hopefully’ that people complain about. But there are many other words that are commonly used: ‘truly,’ ‘positively,’ ‘absolutely.’ But those words don’t stick in people’s craw the way that ‘literally’ does.

Zimmer has a simple solution: Rephrase your sentence.

He points to a recent quote by Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who said, “This is literally a dream come true, just like it is for everyone on this team.’’

“Thomas and his teammates didn’t all ‘literally’ dream about winning the Stanley Cup and then wake up to find themselves acting out their dreams,’’ Zimmer says. “He could have used another intensifier (‘absolutely,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘unquestionably’) to make the same point.’’

Thomas’s teammate Andrew Ference said of the Bruins victory parade, “I can’t wrap my mind around how many people were there. I literally can’t wrap my head around it.’’

Zimmer says, “It’s true, he can’t literally wrap his head around the number of people who went to the parade. And thank goodness - that kind of literal head-wrapping would be very painful indeed. Other intensifiers that could work here include ‘simply,’ ‘honestly,’ and ‘frankly.’ ’’

The ubiquity of the usage does not make it correct.

“Many people still don’t like it,’’ Zimmer says. “Just by rephrasing, you can save yourself a lot of grief.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

'I can’t wrap my mind around how many people were there. I literally can’t wrap my head around it.' ANDREW FERENCE Bruins defenseman (above) (John Tlumacki / Globe Staff) "I can’t wrap my mind around how many people were there.
I literally can’t wrap my head around it."

ANDREW FERENCE Bruins defenseman (above)

FIVE STAGES OF MISUSE
Bryan Garner, an attorney and linguist, has developed a scale for the stages of word misuse.

1. A mistake of usage crops up. It may get a little bit of currency, but it is widely rejected.

2. The misuse spreads. It begins to gain traction with as many as half of the members of the language community.

3. The misuse now infiltrates a majority of the language community, including many college- educated people. (This is where Garner says ‘‘literally’’ is.)

4. It becomes all but ubiquitous, and only a fewdiehards reject it. The true definition of a word is all but lost. (Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com thinks that ‘‘literally’’ has slipped dangerously close to stage four.)

5. The incorrect definition is truly universal, and the only people who reject to it are considered eccentrics.