My favourite example of someone misusing the word literally occurred several years ago when a new television movie about the remarkable Terry Fox was being hyped by the press. An entertainment writer, in a well-meaning attempt to heap praise on the actor playing the lead role, said “he literally became Terry Fox”. Wow. That would have been startling to the other people on the set, to say the least.
He did not, of course, actually become Terry Fox. If he had, he would have almost certainly won an Emmy award for Best Actor (although you can never tell with awards; the voters make some strange choices).
Dictionary definitions of literally use descriptions such as: “actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy” and “really”, and that’s the only definition that most of us accept. A quick search online indicates, though, that for over a century there has been some acceptance of the idea that you can use the word literally in informal speech “to add emphasis to figurative expressions”. I guess that leaves the speaker to decide if his usage sounds formal, informal, or just plain stupid.
Why should any use other than that originally intended gain acceptance? Let’s all use literally the way it was meant to be used, or not at all, because when some of us – hopefully lots of us – hear people saying things such as “I literally died laughing” or “It literally broke my heart”, we roll our eyes and/or laugh. Some of us tend to make snide remarks like “that must have been painful” or even think of whole scenarios based on the literal meaning of the sentence (hence the use of Tales in the blog title above).
Your assignment today, class, is to use this sentence as the subject of a movie script: It was literally raining cats and dogs.
The horror version:
Muffee stood looking uneasily out at the black storm clouds rolling in as she listened to the weather announcer on the television. “It’s literally raining cats and dogs here!” he shouted over the din, “Everyone, get inside! Get insahhhhhh!” Silence. She rushed over to look at the television screen, but it had gone blank.
Just then she heard a bang on the front porch. As the sound of crashing and growling outside grew, Muffee, who had never been the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, started inching toward the front door. Despite the rising volume of the ominous music and the movie audience shouting “don’t do it!”, she reached for the doorknob. Just as she yanked the door open her boyfriend, who had left Muffee to fend for herself and gone exploring alone in the dark elsewhere at the first hint of danger, came bounding down the stairs from the second floor yelling “Muffee, don’t open the ..” but it was too late. Muffee had opened the door and was staring in horror.
Jake the mailman who, ironically, had a deep-rooted fear of dogs, had been sideswiped on the front lawn by a snapping Chihuahua, knocked to the ground by a Persian cat digging its long claws deep into Jake’s flesh in an attempt to soften its fall, and finished off by a particularly large St. Bernard landing squarely on his chest.
It was not a pretty sight.
The family version:
A tousle-haired, freckle-faced, impossibly cute youngster (Jim-Bob) has been lonely on the big farm since his mom died and wishes he had a puppy for company. His distracted but well meaning dad doesn’t have time to take him to get a pet, what with all the chores to be done now that his wife’s gone. Then one day it begins literally raining cats and dogs.
A just-landed Border collie herds the sheep into the barn and a golden retriever puppy lands gently in Jim-Bob’s arms and, by way of a thorough face licking, swears his eternal devotion to the boy before leaping from his arms to fetch the newspaper and deliver it to Dad.
“You know what I think Dad? I think Mom is smiling down on us right now and sent these animals to help us and cheer us up.”
Both father and son had tears trickling down their cheeks. Dad nodded as he hugged his boy and the golden retriever close.
“Everything’s going to be all right from now on son.”
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The misuse of the word literally: great ideas for anyone with writer’s block, an annoyance at any other time.