Tuesday Hatred: Dismembering, Displeasing and Lurking, Too
I hate it when people carp about the supposedly improper figurative use of the word “literally”, as if it’s such a grave sin to use “literally” figuratively because it means (literally!) “not figuratively”. (More or less: few people these days use “literally” to mean something like “letter by letter”.) These people presumably do not blink when confronted with a sentence such as “I was beside myself”, even though, in fact, that rarely the case. But “I was literally beside myself”, just as infrequently the case, angries up their blood something fierce! Why might this be?
Presumably it has something to do with the fact that the inclusion of “literally” holds out a promise of candidness which the upcoming figurative expression immediately denies; it rankles, perhaps, that the very tool with which one might ordinarily deny figurativeness and express, I think this is the important point, sincerity is being used in furtherance of some merely rhetorical effect. The problem, of course, is that it’s precisely because some terms mean “here I’m being sincere” that they’re so useful in nonliteral contexts: that’s why “literally” works to make the image stronger, or more intensely meant (hence what is usually decried is the word’s use as an intensifier), why the only substitutes for the sentence including “literally”, if you wanted not to use the word, would be other words that you most frequently use in affirming the realness of something in doubt: “I was beside myself, really”; “I was honestly beside myself”; “I’ve been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together”, and why “I was figuratively beside myself” can only be a joke. For that matter, these people (whom I hate, remember) go wrong, I think, in saying that “literally” is being used with some wrong or different meaning; the explanation for the phenomena noted in the previous sentence is of course one of the few things about which I’m inclined to agree with Davidson without qualms about, namely, that if “literally” didn’t retain its meaning as literally literally in these sentences, it would be useless in them. (Of course the denial of metaphorical meaning for the terms of the sentences doesn’t necessarily add up to the denial of some specifically metaphorical semantic import for the sentence as a whole, as far as I’m concerned.) Of course that is likely to enrage even further these censorious fools. Which is really too bad, because they make it harder for honest pedants like me to do their work.
I’m of two minds about this whole notion of literal meaning, too! Boy! Aren’t I a barrel of monkeys!
I hate the frequency with which I have doubts or more than doubts about whether an academic career is for me. I also hate that the state of the job market may well render the question moot. (Or, as one might also say, academic! Ho ho ho!) Furthermore, I hate that I’ve been writing these damn Tuesday Hatreds, and sometimes even Friday Afternoon Confessionals, for—if we’re really liberal—two and a half years, and I have yet to be offered a column in a so-called “alt-weekly”. Writing like mine you don’t come across just anywhere, you know.
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