A Word, Please: The hyperbolic 'literally' has no place in this writer's toolbox

On the hit NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," Rob Lowe plays Chris Traeger, a hyper-enthusiastic city administrator with a trademark hyperbole: He says "literally" a lot.

A lot.

Anything at all could be "literally" the greatest thing he's ever seen. Anyone who charms him or impresses him with some admirable trait could be "literally" his favorite person. His zeal is so sincere that you don't even want to punch him in the head.

It's funny because it's implausible. Not everything can be the greatest, much less "literally" the greatest. And because "literally" is a word some people police very carefully, it makes his exaggerations all the funnier.

The "Associated Press Style Guide" sums up the popular position of the people who pay attention to the word. "Literally means in an exact sense. Do not use it figuratively. Wrong: 'He literally bled them white.' (Unless the blood was drained from their bodies.)"

The "Chicago Manual of Style" agrees: "Literally. This word means 'actually; without exaggeration.' It should not be used loosely as an intensifier, as in 'they were literally glued to their seats' (unless glue had in fact been applied)."

I like this distinction. I like having one word that means figuratively and another that means most definitely not figuratively. But no amount of insistence from me, AP or even Chicago can change the facts: The definition of the word "literally" just isn't this narrow.

Look up the word in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and you'll see the first definition is "in a literal sense or manner, actually: 'took the remark literally,' 'was literally insane.'" But the second definition is different: "in effect, virtually: 'will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice.'"

Webster's New World College Dictionary is more reluctant to embrace the hyperbolic usage, instead adding to one it its definitions this note: "Now often used as an intensive to modify a word or phrase that itself is being used figuratively: 'She literally flew into the room.' This latter usage is objected to by some.'"

If you're one of the "some" in question, it's tempting to dismiss this looser usage as an erosion of a word that was once a pure thing but has now decayed into meaningless rot.

The authors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage would beg to differ.

"The chief assertions [critics] make are that the hyperbolic use of 'literally' is a misuse of the word or a mistake for 'figuratively,'" the usage guide notes. "It is neither; it is an extension of intensive use from words and phrases of literal meaning to metaphorical ones."

The usage guide then offers many citations to support its claim.

In other words, this use of "literally" is legit. But should you use "literally" in the hyperbolic sense? That's another question.

"Hyperbole requires care in handling," the guide notes. "Is it necessary, or even useful, to add an intensifier like 'literally' to a well-established metaphorical use of a word or phrase? Will the use add the desired emphasis without calling undue attention to itself, or will the older senses of 'literally' intrude upon the reader's awareness and render the figure ludicrous?"

That, Merriam-Webster's says, you must judge for yourself.

Editors like me are supposed to strive for clarity and precision in the written word. So the hyperbolic "literally" has no place in my toolbox.

If you don't mind being as ludicrous as a TV comedy sitcom, you can use "literally" when you mean "figuratively." Just remember that, if you do, you'll have some of your readers literally seeing red.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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