A Literal Plea To Return Literally To Its Literal MeaningPosted: March 12, 2012
Our owner made a big mistake. He’s ordered far too much wine. So much wine, he’s literally swimming in it up to his neck! Help us by making a reservation for our wine nights…
I ran across the excerpt above during my travels this weekend. It is part of the copy of an advertisement for a fine restaurant with a bad copywriter. What the owners and the ad folks haven’t accounted for is the visual image the line “literally swimming up to his neck in wine” evokes. I, for one, will have none of that wine.
There’s something else I want none of – that sort of twist on the use of the once proud word, literally.
It Isn’t Literally Wrong, Nor Is It Literally Right
The definition of literally contains references to “strict sense”, “word for word”, “without exaggeration or inaccuracy” and “virtually”.
It also has a usage note that “literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning…”. This note is in addition to the definition. It isn’t saying that is the meaning of the word, it is how it has been twisted and re-purposed.
I’m not opposed to re-purposing words. Cool used to just mean slightly chilled, but for decades it has also implied a popular status that made a person or thing sought after. In that way, cool is like the re-purposed hot, which is used to indicate a level of popular desirability as well as the best way to eat chili.
What people who use literally as “an intensifier” fail to account for is the visual nature of the human mind.
My mind creates pictures from the words I read. Those pictures might be true to the author’s intent, or not. They may differ from the pictures your mind creates with those same words.
When I read the word literally, it cues my mind to portray what follows in its strictest sense. Literally makes the ad copy that opened this post become a man, dressed as a maître d’. He is desperately treading Cabernet Sauvignon, his chin barely above the surface of the deep red beverage. I don’t know where that guy was before he began his desperate swim. I just know that he isn’t infusing that wine with anything I want to drink.
That ad literally made me dine elsewhere. Perhaps the owner of the restaurant will swim to the edge of his lake of wine, yank his ad writer in and drown him – figuratively, of course.
Please, return literally to its literal meaning. I’m pleading with you.