It’s literally ironic
Standing in line at the Isis Theater last week, I overheard the comment, “My head literally exploded,” and I listened in as another bystander then gave the tween a literal beating over the head with a figurative dictionary.
Probably irritated by the commonly perceived misuse of the term, he taught us all a thing or two, or did he?
I’m not one to offer impromptu grammar lessons, nor do I consider myself as having a flawless grasp of the English language, but I too have become aware of a recent outbreak in overuse of the word “literally” — although it doesn’t offend me to the point of public tongue-lashings. The word seems to be everywhere, in news headlines, political speeches and even on the playground. I believe it may even be surpassing “ironic” as the new “it” word.
This is ironic, because “literally” was once one of the most misused words in our language, so misused that it was recently redefined. And since the redefinition of the word in 2013, when Webster assigned it two apparently opposing meanings, it now really has no meaning at all. The first definition is “in a literal sense or matter; actually.” The second definition is “in effect; virtually.”
Thanks in part to the overuse of “literally,” the word now means its own exact opposite. Huh? Yep, that is where we are heading. My 3-year-old came home from preschool saying, “Witerally, Mommy, I witerally cannot eat my dinner.” And I wondered where he was getting it. I suppose I’ve adopted the vernacular to some degree, but it wasn’t until his parent-teacher conference that I realized its popularity.
The word has replaced the pause-phrases “um” and “like” that were — um — like — really popular when I was a tween. I recall one Aspen Middle School teacher who would count how often we said “like” and would deduct points from our presentations for each use of the word — like, really, does that seem, um, fair?
People are now increasingly using “literally” to give extreme emphasis to a statement that cannot be true, i.e., “my head literally exploded.”
When I ponder why we, as a culture, need to constantly emphasize whether an event was real or metaphoric, I question if we are entering a new phase in which we don’t really even know for sure which is which.
We live half of our lives in a virtual word, in front of screens or on iPhones, tweeting and Instagramming our way through store lines and bus rides, in parks and on chairlifts. We can Photoshop a perfect life on Facebook and LinkedIn, and we can emoji our feelings via text.
Now that communication, and the potential for miscommunication, is at the speed and scope of the internet, it seems that the Orwellian predictions of Newspeak and doublethink from the book “1984” are yet another sci-fi prediction coming true.
How can this generation be expected to know the difference between reality and reality TV when they have never known a world without a virtual world and no longer know the difference between what is actual and what is figurative — because both are literal.
It’s just so ironic, like my nonconformist hipster friend who ironically wore his father’s hat and then ironically got married after ironically getting a job and buying a house, which ironically is in suburbia and now has a wife who ironically is a member of the public parent-teacher organization. I guess he is literally ironic now.
So to the outspoken moviegoing bystander who taught all of those whippersnappers about the outdated difference between figurative and literal, the irony is that the kids were definitively using the term correctly.
Now that it’s OK to use “literally” to mean “figuratively” as long as you really, really, really mean it, I’m no longer surprised that the ironic use of a word is now literally listed as the definition of the word. Does that make me a hipster, too, or just ironically un-ironic? I literally have no idea.
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