Monday, 2 September 2013

I literally like whatever

“When she crept up behind me I was lost in thought. She tapped me on my shoulder and I literally jumped out of my skin. “ An imaginable if banal piece of dialogue that might be used in casual conversation where ‘literally’ has the role of emphasis. It has the effect of verbal grouting and means no more than ‘you startled me’ Like the use of ‘awesome’ and ‘phenomenal’ it tends to draw attention to a limited power of expression. It is not so much that the word means by strict definition the opposite of this use but that it has been emptied of force and should be left to recuperate in the infirmary of the exhausted.

One could ring the changes (oh dear!) on the phrase I literally jumped out of my skin with “I had an out of the body experience” or “I verified dualism for a moment”.

literally: We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression ‘not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking’, we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate: cf. veritable; such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.
(from Modern English Usage by Henry Fowler, 1928)

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