Of course, it's not, but I wonder how many of you required a second read to realize that the word "literally" ruined an otherwise comprehensible sentence in the subject line. If this kind of dictional malpractice keeps you up at night, you're not alone. The good folks over at The Economist's language blog (fittingly dubbed Johnson) are in a tizzy that the L-word didn't make the cut in an essay by Slate's Ben Yagoda examining which words in the English language deserve protection from wholesale redefinition. The anonymous (per The Economist's tradition) blogger frets:
I'm surprised one popular peeve item didn't make his list: "literally". If the storehouse of traditional vocabulary were fire and I could only save a few items, it'd be one of the ones I'd grab on my way out of the building. "Literally" literally has no neat replacement that I know of; if I try to imagine myself replacing it in a sentence, I only imagine myself saying it louder and more insistently.
Me: It was literally miles away.
Interlocutor: [unimpressed] Hm, really?
Me: No, I mean it was literally miles away. We walked forever. Not literally forever, mind you...
When used properly (as in my attempted joke here), "literally" can pack an irreplaceable punch. And while I can't think of how to tabulate it exactly, my sense is that plenty of people still use "literally" to mean "not figuratively", as I do. The fight isn't over yet on literally, as I suspect it is for "beg the question". So I'm for saving the ones we can. I might literally fight this one to my dying day.
He'll need the strength if the misappropriation continues to come from such visible sources as a certain Vice President.
This brings up an interesting point about language in general. Our methods of verbal communication are wonderful examples of what Hayek called "spontaneous order", open systems where the rules change and adapt to follow common usage. It's the reason we add new words to the dictionary and see others take on new meanings over time. All the rules of grammar that you learned as something just short of priestly edicts during your childhood are nothing more than conventions hallowed by tradition (I brought this up to a Ph.D. student in English at a cocktail party once -- based on her reaction, I think I may have ruined her life). That's not to say they're without utility -- far from it. But they didn't descend from the mountaintop either.
This humble scribe could do without at least a few of the commandments -- foremost among them the prohibition on the split infinitive, which is essentially a fatwa on poetry (try to imagine the tag of "Star Trek" as "To go boldly where no man has gone before").
The case of "literally" is different, however. What we're seeing here is not a transposition of meaning, but an erosion of it. The use of "literally" as an intensifier -- a sort of mid-sentence exclamation point -- ruins a word that, as The Economist notes, has no ready substitute. It's a word that deserves to be saved. And if that means fewer Joe Biden speeches ... well, this is an era of shared sacrifice, isn't it?