Literally Speaking

All the talk about “proper” grammar rules, misstated expressions reminded me of the ever too common habit of people to use “literally” when they mean “figuratively”. I was reminded when my co-wroker today told me he was at a club when he saw this woman that was so good-looking his “jaw literally hit the floor”. Must’ve been painful.

This is one of my language pet peeves (in fact I think I may have posted it somewhere else), people who use ‘literally’ in its figurative sense. And once I started listening for it, I heard it quite a bit. During a soccer game, the commentator said one of the players was “literally carrying this team on his back”. And I still remember a quote from The Complete ‘Yes, Minister’, “Humphrey was literally purple with rage. (we assume the minister did not literally mean “literally”. - ed.)”, which is still the best retort for the situation.

Well, I think they use “literally” for emphasis…although you’re correct when you say that this is incorrect usage.

I agree. This figuratively makes my head explode. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where my brother will deliberately misuse the word “literally” just to get a reaction from me. I’m onto him now, though.

“Literally” is used ironically in these instances.

“My jaw hit the floor. Literally.”

This conveys the cartoony image of someone’s jaw literally dropping open far enough to actually hit the floor.

I’ll agree that this hyperbolic device has come to be much overused, but it’s a type of literary exaggeration that has its place. In other words, and to overexplain, it’s not exactly incorrect, it’s just a figure of speech that’s come to be extremely cliche.


Just curious, is this your personal take or is this really accepted. I have never heard that.

I’m sure there have been people who literally, honest to goodness HAVE turned purple with rage…
My hands turn dead white almost in the cold sometimes…like the color of french vanilla ice cream…seriously…it freaks everyone out.

As a writer, I have used this device in this way. I’m not sure there’s any way to determine if it’s “really accepted.” But in the instances I call to mind, it seems likely that this was the intention.

Of course I’m sure there are a lot of people who don’t have the skill to use such a sophisticated literary device ;). They hear a master use it wisely, to great comic effect, and then shoot themselves in the foot when they try it themselves. Perhaps they assume from context, wrongly, that it means “totally” or even “like, totally.”

These are the poor fools who make it so hard for the rest of us.

I dont know about you guys, but this thread literally made me crap my pants. Like, totally, yall.

This is a very annoying language error. Hyperbole? Come on. Supidity. They rhyme, but they aren’t the same thing.

Molotov: Hope you also didn’t post to the “men who don’t wear underwear” thread.