Tuesday, 17 January 2017

literally

A Series of Unfortunate Events is a good TV show, but I pity Patrick Warburton, who has to serve as decoy for Lemony Snicket so Snicket can remain hidden.

Anyway, I could have done without the digression on literally in episode 2.
Klaus: You're going to marry Violet figuratively and you're going to marry her literally.

Olaf: Literally? That's outrageous. Wait... Literally? Literally...

Klaus: You don't know the difference between figuratively and literally, do you?

Lemony: It's very useful whether one is young or in late middle age to know the difference between literally and figuratively. Literally is a word which here means that something is actually happening. Whereas figuratively is a word which means it just feels like it's happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, that means you are leaping through the air because you are very happy.

Actor: I'm leaping in the air because I'm very happy.

Lemony: If you are figuratively jumping for joy it means that you are so happy you could jump for joy but you are saving your energy for other matters.
Actor: I'm so happy I could jump for joy but I'm saving my energy for other matters.

Klaus: So literally would be an actual marriage whereas figuratively would be marrying her for the purposes of theatrical entertainment.

Olaf: I knew that, I was testing you.
Later:
Olaf: Here I am, literally standing at the edge of a pond.

Gustav: He's not literally standing at the edge of a pond, he's figuratively standing at the edge of a pond.

White-face woman: By the gardens of Worthington, if I can't have him, my heart will literally break.

Jacquelin: Figuratively. My heart will figuratively break.
Taken literally, this is just wrong. Of course literally is used as a figurative intensifier and has been used this way for a while by good writers who presumably knew what they were doing.
"Lift him out," said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit. - Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby 
He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room - Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 
And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell - Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading
Why should I not say my heart will literally break when no one cares when I say my heart will really break or my heart will truly break? Really, truly (and even very) have undergone a shift from meaning "for real" to being used as figurative intensifiers, but no one cares about them.

Why is literally the only word in English we are not supposed to use figuratively?

As Jesse Sheidlower says, the literal meaning of literally is "by the letter" as in he copied the text literally. Every time we use literally to mean "not figuratively", we're using it figuratively.

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