Every now and then, someone will say something like, “If you don’t come with me to this party, I will literally kill myself.” Whoa! Okay, man, give me a few minutes then, because I literally have nothing to wear.
I know that the misuse of the word “literally” is not a new phenomenon. I also know that misusing the word “literally” is not an act of terrorism or a hate crime. I mean, when was the last time that a little hyperbole hurt a nation?
But misusing words is like your roommate misusing your hairdryer to dry her clothes. It’s probably fine every once in a while, but after a while, it’s expensive, ineffective, and you can’t even use it for its original purpose—drying your hair. The word “literally” is like that hair dryer. If you use it for the wrong purpose, soon you won’t be able to dry your hair.
Imagine that you are me, you are teaching eleven-year-olds and you give them homework. If you give a student a homework assignment, they will probably say something like, “We have to read a hundred pages? That’s literally child abuse.” These students, the future of America, have already learned that misusing words is totally acceptable. (For the record, the book had really big font and wide margins.) But what’s the big deal? They’re just being dramatic. It’s not really hurting anyone, right?
But then think: if these children are comfortable slinging around words that they don’t mean, then what if they don’t know to stop at the word “literally?” These children will grow up learning that words like “hate” or “rape” can be used just as informally. Surely you’ve heard someone say, “Wow, that final exam raped my face.” That statement should make you disgustingly uncomfortable. That statement is also representative of what we’ve become. We’re growing up and learning to casually toss around the most horrific crimes against humanity.
The definition of the word “literally,” according to Google, has now changed to include “informally used for emphasis while not being literally true.” We might as well redefine “definitions” as “not definitions of words themselves, but used for emphasis.”
So let me just clarify something, once and for all. Using the word “literally” to mean “not literally” is wrong. It’s wrong. The word “literally” means “literally” and not “figuratively,” “metaphorically,” or “I’m-using-this-for-emphasis-but-I-don’t-mean-it.” And the next person I hear using “literally” incorrectly, I will literally strangle*.
*strangle |ˈstraNGgəl|• verb [ with obj.]
1. squeeze or constrict the neck of (a person or animal), esp. so as to cause death.
2. emphasizing the expression of aggressive feelings, while not literally strangling.