Thursday, August 7, 2008

Quite Literally

Entertaining as my rantings about the state of the writing nation may be, I can assure you they are not fun to write. They often leave me with a metallic taste in my mouth and a sense of hopelessness that I cannot shake off easily. It usually takes a good sleep and then it all floods back when I re-read the blog. Something else I would like to write about is the misuse of literally, except I do not need to write about it myself, because someone has done so already.

"Literally features in all style and usage guides. Don't use it when you don't mean it, they say. 'He literally exploded with anger' is absurd. But do use it if you need to make clear that a stale metaphor is, for once, an accurate statement. 'He literally died laughing' could be true. Most published uses of literally fail the test:

In the Austenian economy, a woman's face is literally her fortune.

(Naomi Wolf, Sunday Times)

Eyewitness accounts of this practice are literally blood-curling.


The more satire there is, the less effect it has. We are all literally deafened.

(Libby Purves, Times)

Kate's tummy has been literally sliced off, leaving her looking positively concave.

(The Daily Mail describes the retouching of a photograph of Kate Winslet)

Some people are aware of the problem. As Zadie Smith has one of her characters say: 'Only idiots use the word "literally" in conversation'. Others seem to think that by putting 'almost' in front of 'literally' they can make it work:

The people of the rebuilt Oradour lived, almost literally, within this history.

(Adam Nossiter)

The network was making so much money that it almost literally didn't know what to do with it.

(Mark Lawson)

Rock stars and actors - the people we rely on to flout convention on principle - get married every day. Some of them almost literally everyday.


Aunt Rose has a body almost literally eaten into by history.

(James Wood)

But how can something be 'almost literally' true? Either it is true or it ain't. And the same applies to 'more or less':

I grew up in a church that more or less literally invented the mea culpa.

(New York Times)

At first glance Salman Rushdie has a case for 'perhaps' in:

Bronislawa had exhausted three judges and four lawyers. Of this she had become (perhaps literally) insanely proud.

But the character is either insane or not: 'perhaps literally' is a pointless parenthesis which reminds us that 'insanely proud' is usually a metaphor. Because literally is so generally misused, some people feel that they have to add an intensifier like 'quite' - to say 'I really mean it':

Conformity was encouraged by uniformity - quite literally, in the manner of dress.

(Sunday Times)

Those Englishmen in the year 1000 who believed quite literally in the little people, the fairies, trolls and elves.

(Tom Wolfe)

In turn 'quite literally' becomes the standard phrase:

Clinton was quite literally too clever by half.

(Sunday Times)

This is where you go quite literally mad with grief.

(Magazine editor Lindsay Nicholson)

And so for people who want to say 'I really mean it', a further intensifier is needed. Both examples come from The Guardian:

Lee Westwood has backed himself to win the Sun City Golf Challenge after an abysmal year by his standards. Quite literally, in fact. The Workshop player put a sizeable wager on himself.

In Sicily one Vittorio Greco has gone to his grave. Quite literally, in fact: Vittorio was checking progress on a family tomb when he slipped, struck his head and died on the spot.

Quite literally, in fact - or literally, literally, literally. Why not give this word a rest?"

Why indeed my friends... Quite Literally by Wynford Hicks.
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