Saturday, August 29, 2009


Recently came across an ever growing club: AWFUL: Americans Who Figuratively Use 'Literally'.

From White Plume:

According to Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought, Roger Tobin coined this acronym. The book says:

The charter member was Rabbi Baruch Korff, a defender of Richard Nixon during his Watergate ordeal, who at one point protested, "The American press has literally emasculated President Nixon."
As our language evolves, using literally when speaking figuratively is becoming more accepted in informal speech as a method of exaggeration. However, in formal writing, I recommend you use both words precisely. When you're literally correct, you avoid figuratively pushing proper English out the door.
Now, I don't mind if words change their meaning as long as we have some word to stand for each of the meanings that are useful to preserve. As precise/literal sense of 'literally' is gradually being eroded away (not literally!), perhaps we should be on the lookout for words that might take its place.

How about 'metaphorically' or 'figuratively'? We could just gradually swap the meanings of 'literally' and 'figuratively'. Say I want to emphasize that what I'm saying is not a mere figurative exaggeration (I really was knocked out --- i.e., rendered unconscious --- by last night's band), I could say, 'I was figuratively knocked out by the band last night!' --- meaning not figuratively. Maybe after a while their meanings would swap back --- rather like the earth's magnetic field.

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