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A Literal Plea To Return Literally To Its Literal Meaning

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…

Silver Oak 2004 Alexander Valley. Cabernet Sau...

It's like this, but apparently a lot more (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

Intensifying Unpleasantness

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.

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21 Comments on “A Literal Plea To Return Literally To Its Literal Meaning”

  1. Todd says:

    Sometimes, I’ll ask, “Literally? You literally died when that happened?” The response is usually always yes, the person literally died. Then, I feel like a jerk for trying to subtlely point out that the person is actually not dead.

  2. Horsedonkeymulezebra says:

    This has long been a pet peeve of mine. When someone misuses “literally” it is like someone running their fingers down little chalkboards that have been installed behind my eyes. My three favorite instances:

    1. A radio commercial done by famous idiot John Hancock of WBT radio. “The chef uses a secret blend of spices and herbs, so the fish literally comes alive in your mouth!”

    2. A computer tech that used to work for me: “We got there, and the network closet was locked and we had to wait for the person with the key to show up. Dave and I literally stood around for half a day with our thumbs up our asses!”

    3. I was in Los Angeles many years ago, along with Manfred, a installation tech who I could write an entire book about. (Manfred once answered the question “Hey Manfred, heads or tails?” by saying “What do you mean?”)

    We were doing an installation and training at a textile company run by Mr. Gee, a very nice Korean man who insisted on taking us to his favorite Korean restaurant for dinner one night. There were about 40 small bowls on the table with different items that could be cooked on the small grill in the center of the table. Manfred pointed to one and said “Mr. Gee, what are those?” Mr. Gee said “Oysters” Manfred asked “Literally oysters?” I snapped back “No Manfred, metaphorically! They are literally chicken nuggets, but they represent the oysters within man in Western Society”

    So, he ate one. Saying that it was amazing that they could make a chicken nugget taste so much like an oyster. I resisted the urge to press his face into the small grill in the center of the table.

  3. I jumped for joy and shouted “Hallelujah, Brother Omawarisan!” when I read this. I’ll let you decide whether I did so figuratively or literally. You just never know with me.

  4. theresa says:

    I thought my comment was going to be how grateful I am that you wrote about one of my biggest pet peeves. But then I read this sentence: “My mind creates pictures from the words I read.” This reminded me of another pet peeve. I hate it when people say that someone “got their ass chewed,” for what should by now be obvious reasons.

  5. Lenore Diane says:

    I like the irony. The meaning: “without exaggeration or inaccuracy”, yet it is literally used with exaggeration and inaccuracy.

    Well written, Oma. I am on board with your efforts to return the word to its literal roots. While we are at it, I would like to enforce the proper use of ‘unique’. Either unique or not – please refrain from ‘very unique’, etc.

  6. Jane says:

    I love pet peeves, especially grammatical ones.

  7. On an episode of 1000 Ways to Die, a guy died from laughing. For some reason, he couldn’t stop laughing, and too much laughing caused something to happen, and then he died. He’s the only person who can say he literally died laughing…except he’s dead…so he can’t say that.

    • omawarisan says:

      I wonder what he was laughing at. That almost sounds like a twilight zone show- some guy mocking and laughing at someone and never stopping, until he stops

  8. Debbie says:

    ‘Literally’ is one of those words we sometimes say but rarely write. When you say it or hear others say it, you don’t think much about it; but when you see it written out in black-and-white as you’ve done, Sir, well, you realize how wrong it is and how dumb it looks! Thanks for doing your part to keep the language intact!

  9. spencercourt says:

    I’m with you. The line between literally and virtually must be maintained.

  10. […] is (not-literally) the dictionary I currently own.  I’ve had it since 1995, when the PTA gave a copy to each […]

  11. shoutabyss says:


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