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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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February 17, 2009 - Posted by | Tuesday Hatred

25 Comments

  1. Can’t say I didn’t try, with the alt-weekly.

    Comment by Wrongshore | February 17, 2009

  2. “Literally” grates because it rankles my internal editor. You put words in sentences for a reason; why is that one there? Oh, it’s just wasting space. And it’s not just wasting space, it’s wasting space while saying the opposite of the thing you mean it to say. I also hate gratuitous quotation marks, “could care less” in place of “couldn’t care less,” etc.

    I hate one of my co-workers, but more than that, I hate that I hate one of my co-workers, because this particular co-worker inspires a kind of miserable bathos as much as furious irritation. I hate that she’ll likely get herself fired in the near future, because a short while ago, when it didn’t seem likely that anyone might get fired, I was wishing out of spite that she might get fired, and now when she gets fired I’ll feel like crap.

    I hate Larry Summers for lots and lots of reasons. I hate more Obama administration people than just Larry Summers, but he’s my pick for today.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | February 17, 2009

  3. But stras, it’s not wasting space and it’s not “saying the opposite of the thing you mean it to say”, whatever you mean by that.

    Can’t say I didn’t try, with the alt-weekly.

    I can say whatever I want.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  4. No one likes an inconsistent grammar nazi, Ben.

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | February 17, 2009

  5. Why does it not surprise me that stras is precisely the kind of person Ben is talking about here?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 17, 2009

  6. I used to be one of the ones Ben is railing against, but I gave up on literally after reading a similar argument elsewhere. It was probably the New Yorker because I pretty much think however they tell me to.

    I will never give up the fight against “most unique”, though, dammit.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | February 17, 2009

  7. I hate the deep ambivalence I feel about my upcoming campus visit. I hate the painful chin zit I have suddenly acquired for the occasion of this visit. I hate having to remove multiple things from my carry-on bag at the airport security checkpoint. I hate flying Southwest. I hate the way airports smell. I hate the setup I encountered at the Charlotte airport the last time I flew somewhere, where every bathroom is stocked with depressing attendants with tip baskets. I hate people who intrude upon my robust American personal space.

    Comment by redfoxtailshrub | February 17, 2009

  8. I hate that once again I forgot the proper classification of the TH.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  9. Why does it not surprise me that stras is precisely the kind of person Ben is talking about here?

    I don’t know, Adam. Why doesn’t it surprise you?

    Comment by strasmangelo jones | February 17, 2009

  10. A friend of mine who carped about ‘literally’ pointed out the unnerving frequency with which — in a certain strain of colloquial British English at least — it accompanied defecation analogies.

    E.g. ‘I literally shit myself’ or ‘I literally couldn’t give a shit’.

    Ever since, his way of expressing this has infected my mind in such a way as to make conversations involving such analogies substantially less pleasant. I literally can’t stand it.

    Comment by RobDP | February 17, 2009

  11. if “literally” didn’t retain its meaning as literally literally in these sentences, it would be useless in them.

    I don’t understand this. Will you explain it to me? “Literally” as used above is an intensifier — it retains its meaning insofar is it needs to mean something in order to intensify the sentence, but only slightly moreso than, say, “motherfucking”.

    A friend proposes “literatively” for using figurative speech literally. He has an orange tree, and the idea came to him while picking low-hanging fruit.

    Comment by Wrongshore | February 17, 2009

  12. Is that tree actually orange? Or is in an orange tree because it grows oranges? Words are never literal, and least of all the word literal. It is just the old Pathetic Fallacy: to convey an emotion, or color, it is not enough to use a direct signifier; the word “orange” is not orange, in other words. And neither is the word “literal” literal.

    Comment by Lloyd Mintern | February 17, 2009

  13. “Literally” is not just a generic intensifier! It does specific work that other intensifiers don’t. You could replace it with “I’m not even exaggerating” or something like that, but you couldn’t just replace it with “motherfucking” or “really” and retain the same meaning of the statement. Anyone who can’t see that is literally not thinking hard enough.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 17, 2009

  14. I’m thinking really hard. I’m just not thinking well enough.

    “Practically” seems like the most literal equivalent for the word being done by “literally”. “I practically shit myself laughing” — I didn’t literally soil myself, but it is practical to say that I did because it conveys how hard I laughed.

    Is the work being done by “literally” “Please imagine the actual semantic content of the next words, because that will give you a sense of how I want to modify this statement?”

    Not a generic intensifier — a reflexive one.

    Comment by Wrongshore | February 17, 2009

  15. “I practically shit myself laughing” and “I literally shit myself laughing” are completely different!

    A certain foxy person emailed me this article.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  16. In particular, I think that if you practically shit yourself laughing, then you had better have at least come close to actually shitting yourself laughing. This isn’t the case with “I literally shit myself laughing”.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  17. The way I see it, it’s what happens when a metaphor gets literally sick and tired of being Allegorical and attempts to break into the Real.

    Comment by abb1 | February 17, 2009

  18. From the link in 15,

    people use the word in this way precisely because they do understand the notion of literal meaning, and they associate it, naturally enough, with plain speaking and honest expression.

    and

    the folk model of literal meaning seems to be unchanged. In both cases, literal meaning is associated with directness, plain speaking, and, fundamentally,
    with truth. The shift itself seems to reflect little more than an equivocation between sentence meaning and speaker meaning. This sort of shift is, in fact, quite common
    with modal expressions whose basic function is to emphasize the fit between reality and the way it is described, and the [following] examples … show uses of really and truly which closely parallel the use of literally in (8): [...] a. Her guacamole is truly out of this world. b. She really pulled the wool over our eyes. As Brugman notes, the adverbs here effectively signal ‘‘that the conventionalized nonliteral meaning [of a figurative expression] … is being used in a strict sense’’.

    suggest to me that “literally” is not at all similar to “motherfucking” but, pace 13, is in the same family as “really”. It’s an intensifier of truth-value.

    I know this isn’t the place for it, but I confess that I enjoy having the opportunity to use “pace“.

    Comment by Wrongshore | February 17, 2009

  19. I hate cockweasels who try to trick Facebook users into signing up for their shitty Facebook apps by adding adverts to other Facebook apps that contain what look like the user interface elements needed to operate those apps. Not that I’m that easily fooled, but the sheer cockweaselry of it makes me fantasize about genetically-engineered viruses that will cause shallow, dishonest, unscrupulous people’s faces to melt off, and that’s not a healthy state of mind for me to be in.

    Comment by Dominic | February 17, 2009

  20. I hate the recurring dream I have in which I am entrusted with the care of a little human being which then shrinks and breaks or, in a slight variant, becomes an insect then disappears, leaving me with guilt and horror. It’s really nasty and I’ve had it for years and years and years. Leave me alone, recurring dream-world! Bring me flying saucers and cosmic cities! Strange sexual utopias in which pigs can frolic with frying-pans and not get burnt! Where kittens speak Russian and where everyone gets to do crosswords all the time! Or not if they don’t want to!

    I also hate food-poisoning, though that bit where emesis is complete and everything is completely pure and empty is oddly satisfying, like listening to Nine Inch Nails in the rain. Not that ever do that, of course, urgh!

    Comment by infinite thought | February 17, 2009

  21. I hate rain, walking and biking in it. I hate that I looked out at the sky before decamping to this quaint, or even kitschy, cafe, and deciding it was safe to venture out without an umbrella, only now to find that it’s pouring. At least I’m only two blocks from home.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  22. Why does the paper linked in 15 feel (read) as though it’s partially tongue-in-cheek?

    Comment by parsimon | February 17, 2009

  23. The question is ill-posed, since it doesn’t.

    Comment by ben | February 17, 2009

  24. i’m glad to come home and find nothing disturbing me b/c i hated yesterday the truck which kept its engine running all night, i was about to call to 911 and complain about public rights on quiet at night, but managed to fall asleep somehow
    i hate that the person who was like urging to meet pre-valentines and asking for my photo etc did not respond after the sent photo, so i must be ugly
    or it was perhaps that rule violation message sent together,
    whatever though

    Comment by read | February 17, 2009

  25. I hate it when waiters develop an overly intrustive and enthusiastic persona. I hate it when people say, “a ‘for example,'” as in “Can you give me a ‘for example’?”

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | February 19, 2009


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