When Wrong Becomes Right

October 14, 2008

Warning:  I may sound like a curmudgeonly Andy Rooney in this post…

I was all set to write a snarky “THE PANDA SAYS NO” post about how Hattie Kauffman misused the word “literally” In a CBS Early Show news report this morning.  Talking about the wildfires in California, Ms. Kauffman said that in some areas, the smoke was so thick, day literally became night.

Let that sink in for a moment:  DAY LITERALLY BECAME NIGHT.

To back up my gritted teeth reaction to this misuse of the word “literally,” I visited Dictionary.com so I could link to the definition and say, “Aha!  See there?  I know what I’m talking about when I say she’s wrong.”  Unfortunately, what I found in addition to the definitions was this little disclaimer:

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.

Argh!  No way! This is yet another example of something being done incorrectly so often that it actually becomes acceptable.

The English language is a marvelous thing, full of subtle nuances and so many choices for words.  Ever look at all of the names for “red” on tubes of lipstick?  There are hundreds of them!  (Literally!) Why use a word in a way that is not intended, when there are so many other options —

  • day nearly became night
  • day almost became night
  • day practically became night
  • I could’ve sworn that day became night
  • day seemed to become night
  • it was impossible to tell the difference between day and night

I don’t care if Dictionary.com says it’s okay to use literally in a non-literal way; I’ll rail against in any time I see or hear it.

So there.  😛


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