Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


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.

7 Responses to “Semi-Literally”

  1. Ellen K. said

    I’m okay with the first example, about the Kleenex. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to interpret “go through” as implying moving oneself through something.

    Although, thinking about it more, it seems a bit unnecessary, so maybe it does have something of an intensifier-ness to it. To me, to say that one really did go through a complete whole box of tissue, I’d say “not exaggerating”, not “literally”.

    The second example feels garden-path-ish. It definitely gives me a picture of physically laying his eye on others until the “he’s only got one eye” clarifies. I think in the context it’s okay, though not ideal, but in other contexts something like that would be, well, inappropriately distracting.

  2. Ran said

    I find the first one completely fine and the second one completely not.

  3. Jonathon said

    I have no problem with the first, but the second doesn’t work for me either. I think it’s like “only,” where the scope applies to the stressed word or phrase. I want the “literally” to be referring to “always” or possibly “on,” but “literally his eye” just doesn’t make sense to me. Nothing about that necessarily implies that there is only one eye.

  4. 4ndyman said

    Don’t confuse “figuratively” with “colloquially” or “idiomatically.” They aren’t the same. When someone says “literally,” they mean (or they should) “without exaggeration,” not “using the most common, physical definition of the words.” “To go through” is not a figurative phrase, it’s a colloquial one that has its own colloquial definition. “Literally” doesn’t mean that you have to define each word individually. So I see nothing wrong with the first example.

    Here’s another example:
    “He was literally canned on the spot.” This doesn’t mean that he was placed inside an airtight, metal container while standing on a discoloration. “Canned” can also be idiomatically defined (look in the dictionary) as being dismissed from a job. The phrase “on the spot” means “without hesitation.” “On” and “spot” shouldn’t be defined physically. This sentence surely would make less sense if it were written “He was figuratively canned on the spot.” Who would understand what you mean?

    In short, I believe it is correct usage when “literally” refers to [(the meaning of the entire statement) without exaggeration], as opposed to [the commonest physical denotation of each word, taken individually].

  5. kip said

    The first one is a little odd to me, but not because I thought she meant the literally applied to “going through.” It’s because “literally” isn’t necessary, since anyone would take that phrase literally anyway. Usually when people say “literally” it is to signal to the reader/listener that the preceding statement, which they probably thought was figurative, was in fact accurate. There’s no reason to take “I went through a whole box of Kleenex” as an exaggeration.

    Now the second example is all kinds of weird. The number of eyes he has is irrelevant: people with one, two, or ten functioning eyes can “keep an eye” on someone. When he says “literally,” you have to figure out what was the seemingly figurative statement that was actually literal. This could be either that his eye is somehow affixed to the other person, or that he can literally see them at all times (like God or Santa Claus). When they say “his eye” no one takes that literally or figuratively as a reference to the number of eyes he has, only to the number of eyes he uses to watch them (figuratively).

  6. […] they are, ‘literally’ will one day become just another emphasizer”; and with Neal Whitman, at Literal-Minded, who wants there to be a word “that signals you’re not speaking figuratively”, and finds that […]

  7. I do agree that “literally” became a kind of emphisizer but I opt for applying it to the whole sentence for one simple reason – it would be hard to guess which part of the sentence we should understand literally. Let’s emphisize not confuse the interlocutors.

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