Sunday, 12 February 2012

Off topic - literally

Actually, I rather enjoy it when people force a "literally" where the antithetical and more pretentious "figuratively" would do – would, in fact, be more literal.

But as Anthony Burgess once said, the poet and the pedant are as one, and grammar is glamour. So let's be poetical. Let's indulge ourselves in some glamour. It is tiresome to merely point out the ridiculousness of a statement such as "that cross to Rooney was literally on a plate" (Jamie Redknapp) or "Barca literally passed Arsenal to death" (Jamie Redknapp) or "he had to cut back inside on to his left, because he literally hasn't got a right foot" (Jamie Redknapp). It is even more boring to then counter this with a pained attempt at sarcasm such as "did he smash the china?", "someone should call the police" or "wow, a uniped footballer" (Unglamorous Pedant). It is far more interesting and glamorous to question what we are doing when we say "he walks into the room and he's literally like a hurricane" (Chantelle Houghton) or when, over a contemplative cuppa perhaps, we merely observe that "centre forwards have the ability to make time stand still. And when Chopra got the ball, it literally did just that" (Jamie Redknapp). What, for instance, might these phrases have to say about our relationship to reality?

I'm no socio-linguist or cognitive-scientist, but I do like to float some hypotheses: maybe we're a generation that is scared of commitment, linguistically deferring reality with our false literallys and our compulsive "likes" and "sort ofs" and "kind of things" that make everything seem only tentative and approximate; maybe our literallys are geared for emphasis, betraying a touching desire to be taken seriously or a cry for attention; maybe our misuse reveals a deeper insecurity about what in fact is real; maybe it reflects a sheer disregard for proportion or accuracy; or maybe it arises from a subconscious need for universality in a confusing age of spiralling subjectivities and relativistic hopscotch, longing to pin down objective truths in even the most fantastical of scenarios …

Of course, we might just be lazy and imprecise users of language. But what happens when James Joyce uses "literally" incorrectly, as when he says that "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet" or tells us that to Leopold Bloom's mind the Gloria in Mozart's Twelfth Mass is "the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat". Is James's "literally" any better than Jamie's?

snippets from an article by Ben Masters at the Guardian

now I am literally scared of using the word literally, just in case.

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