IT’s Enough to Literally Make Your Head Explode
“I got ROBBED. I don’t mean the Oscars, I mean literally. My pants and shoes have been stolen.”
— Albert Brooks, in a Tweet last week.
Commenting recently on the GOP presidential race, prominent political prognosticator Larry Sabato said that in Florida, “we have what is literally a Category 5 hurricane for the Republican nomination.”
Literally? Yikes. The last time a Cat-5 hurricane made landfall in the United States was seven years ago, when Katrina slammed into New Orleans. Tuesday’s primary was eventful, but nothing as bad as all that. The word Sabato wanted was “figuratively,” not literally.
He is not alone. About the same time, a Denver TV station was reporting that a young man named Jordan Staucet “is pounding the pavement - literally - looking for a job.” So he was hammering the concrete with his fists? Not exactly. He was simply walking around handing out résumés.
“Pounding the pavement” is an idiom, a figure of speech, and normally nobody would perform a figurative act literally. If you say someone does pound the pavement literally, then you are saying - well, you know.
Unlike the Denver station, Deadline grokked that distinction when it surmised Dwight Schrute, a character on The Office, could be “off to greener pastures … literally.” ABC reportedly has been considering a spinoff that would feature the Schrute family on its beet farm.
It was a different story for The Awl, which complained recently that “Free Subway Rag Now Literally Destroying America.” (The Awl is free too; maybe free online rags are superior to free print rags. Anything’s possible!) The object of the author’s ire was a publication called Metro, which had written a headline about Barack Obama’s State of the Union address that the Awl writer didn’t like. America, somehow, is still standing.
In that case, the Awl writer was so cheesed off she felt it not sufficient to say merely that Metro was destroying the nation. She wanted to say so even more emphatically, and so added “literally,” which seems vaguely illiterate.
This is a snooty, pedantic complaint—but certainly not an original one. A “Dictionary of Jack” YouTube video made the same point five years ago. Minnesota Public Radio has aired the question. Plenty of others have griped about the subject as well. For a while, there was a blog keeping track of slipshod uses of literally—such as when Education Secretary Arne Duncan said starting the school year in September, rather than sometime earlier, was “literally taking a step backward.” (Because students forget what they learn in the spring.) Or when a spokeswoman for Sarah Palin said “the world is literally her oyster.” Palin’s detractors would call that casting pearls before swine.