I think about words a lot. I think about what I am going to say, and I think about what I said. I think about how words taste, how they feel when they roll around in your mouth. How they choke you when they are left unsaid. How they are so slippery sometimes that they slide right out. That’s why I try my best to choose the right ones when I need them, to use precise language when I am able to.
So, why doesn’t anyone else? I mean, I get it. We can all get a bit lazy with our speech, and sometimes, we can only reach the words that are in our grasp. So, we tend to repeat things. We tend to say things that don’t make any sense. We can even say things we don’t mean.
But what happens when we use a word so much that we warp its true meaning? What happens when we say a word so many times that it doesn’t seem to be a real word anymore? These things have consequences, you know.
And that’s where the monstrosity “literally” comes in. It is a cross between good intentions and mixed signals. Weirdly, it’s used to emphasize what we are saying by completely invalidating it. It means in “actuality” but we use it figuratively. So, we get ridiculousness like this:
“I literally died when I heard that.”
“She literally killed me.”
“I literally could not stop laughing.”
“I am literally starving.”
“You are literally the dumbest person on Earth.”
The problem is, if we don’t stop using “literally” in contexts that it should not be used, its meaning will change. Because that’s all our language is: transforming meanings and uses. Someone simply said “dinosaur” or “bulbous” enough times that it became attached to a specific image. Our language is simply made up of symbols that represent other symbols. And it is changing all of the time. That’s why we get 50/50 slang words like “bad,” which can also mean good.
However, the only way that we can preserve the integrity of our language is through saying what we mean. Inevitably, that means we need to mean what we say. And don’t get me wrong: I am in favor of free-styling. Go ahead, use LOL.
But don’t give a new meaning to a word that has never needed an upgrade in the first place. “Literally” should be reserved for clarifying puns, and not as an honorary curse word to give your sentence emphasis. Words are more than what meets the eye or rolls off the tongue, and we need to keep it that way.