Posted by Neal on April 10, 2010
Over on Language Log, there’s a new post about the usage of literally, inspired by an xkcd strip. So this seems as good a time as any to bring up a couple of interesting literally examples I’ve heard in the last couple of months. Before I do, though, let me say that I don’t care that very, really, and truly have gone through the same semantic weakening that literally has undergone; I don’t care that literally has been used non-literally for hundreds of years. I admit these facts, but darn it, I want there to be a word that signals you’re not speaking figuratively, and literally is the best word for the job.
First, there was the time my wife had a sinus infection. At the end of one day during the peak of the infection, she told me
I went through a whole box of Kleenex — literally.
I was just about to say, “Wow, how did you make yourself small enough to go through it?” when I realized that the literally part wasn’t about the going through idiom, but about the whole box part. She hadn’t just used half the box, not just three quarters of it, but literally the whole box. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, did I?
Then there were the promos for a TV special for the Penguins of Madagascar–the team of commando penguins from the two Madagascar movies. The special featured their (newly introduced) nemesis, Dr. Blowhole, a bottlenosed dolphin with a Picard-as-Borg-like eyepiece fitted over his right eye socket. One of the promos was this one:
That’s right: Near the end, one of the penguins says
No matter where we go, he’s always got his eye on us! Literally — He’s only got the one eye.
When the penguin (I think it’s the one named Kowalski) said “Literally,” I got the same kind of mental image I did when Jim Croce sang, “She caught my eye, and I put it back.” But then Kowalski finished with “He’s only got the one eye,” and I realized that the literally applied not to the part about having an eye on someone, but more specifically about an eye.
So for all you speakers like me, who use literally to mean that you’re not speaking figuratively or exaggerating, what do you think? Are these examples legitimate? Does literally have to scope over the entire sentence that it’s part of, or are we cool as long as it’s highlighting some part of the sentence as the literal truth?
UPDATE, Apr. 12, 2010: In first paragraph, put in link to Word Routes column that I forgot.