Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being Literal, In the Figurative Sense

Years ago, a dear friend of mine described one of his pet peeves:

people who use the word "literally" incorrectly

Specifically, I recall him describing a prolonged conversation with a Taco Bell employee who complained that his car was "literally" a piece of shit and would not understand that, while his car might be very junky, it was not possible for it to be "literally a piece of shit" and also to be a car. It had to be either one or the other. (Or, I suppose, a piece of shit shaped like a car.)

Ever since then, I've caught myself becoming frustrated when I hear the word "literally" used incorrectly, when the word "figuratively" is what is intended.

Well, little did I know that there's a name for it, as outlined by Steven Pinker in his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Here's the relevant passage, where he's discussing people who gain:
... entry into the club called AWFUL - Americans Who Figuratively Use "Literally." The charter member was Rabbi Baruch Korff, a defender of Richard Nixon during his Watergate ordeal, who at one point protested, "The American press has literally emasculated President Nixon."
Another fun one that I heard recently was on PBS' Frontline episode "The Warning," about the woman who in the late 1990s sounded the alarm about the housing finance crisis. Here's a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Susskind, describing the situation in which this woman found herself when going up against Alan Greenspan and others on this issue:
... she is literally in the crossfire of an amazing number of bullets.
Unless Greenspan is a lot more cutthroat than described in the documentary, this is certainly not "literally" true. But if this sort of statement can be made by a Pulitzer-winner, there's hope for the rest of us!

Such fun little tangents are frequent in Pinker's book, which presents the over-arching argument that language provides us with a window into fundamental human nature. Along the way, however, he addresses a lot of linguistic peculiarities, including the origin of swearing, one of the more fun chapters (especially listening to it in audiobook version).
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