language & grammar

‘Literally’ decimated, figuratively speaking

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“The offensive line is literally decimated by injury,” the sportscaster says, and no one bats an eye. At the water cooler the next day, a few guys talking about the game lament the injured state of the hometown team. “Their offensive line is literally decimated by injury,” one of them says, and they all shake their heads, agreeing with this grim assessment. Quietly, but not literally, the English language slumps against the water cooler and right there dies a slow death.

As nice as it might seem that sportscasters and American football fans are using big and complex-sounding words like literally and decimated, this doesn’t bode well for the future of the English language. Both literally and decimated have specific functions and meanings, and the misuse of the former is reaching proportions that threaten to impede our language’s capacity to allow people to communicate clearly with each other.

Decimated literally means that every tenth man has been killed. Decimated is properly used to describe a Roman policy of choosing a group of ten soldiers to punish and then randomly killing one of them to “inspire fear and resolve in the remaining troops.”

Decimated is also used to describe circumstances in which approximately 10 percent — or any significant minority — of a given group or population has been killed, due to war or natural disaster or some other horror. We might understand why people describing the death of that portion of a population would say it has been “literally decimated,” since they are indicating that in fact about a tenth, or more loosely, a lot of people, have been killed, and they want to distinguish this from the entirely figurative use of decimated by sportscasters. Still, this use is not literal.

Our sportscaster is obviously using decimated figuratively. He certainly does not mean that 10 percent of the offensive line has been killed in order to motivate the other players, nor does he even necessarily mean that 10 percent of the offensive line is out due to injury. He just means that many members of the offensive line are injured.

We might wish the sportscaster would choose his words more carefully, because there could be a major war and some commanders could resort to decimation, as, allegedly, an Italian general did in World War I and a Soviet Corp commander did in World War II. Decimated is the only word that indicates that a tenth of a group has been killed as a deliberate method of imposing fear. Ravaged, diluted, weakened, thinned, and many other words meet the needs of the sportscaster describing the injury-plagued offensive line. Why weaken decimate and its specific meaning by applying it to sprained ankles on a football team?

But let us grant the sportscaster his use of decimate. Chalk it up to figurative speech, colorful language, poetic license, even. As this kind of use proliferates and decimate becomes part of the vernacular, literally becomes ever more important. Because of the influence of multiple sportscasters and news reporters and others with dubious command of the language, decimated will (and perhaps has already) come to mean riddled with injury or weakened.

Literally is a functional word that helps us understand in what ways other words are being used, and people need to get a figurative (not a literal) grasp on its proper use. In Merriam Webster’s Tenth Edition, literally is (1) “In a literal sense or manner; actually” (as in “he took the remark literally”). This seems to contradict (2) “Virtually” (as in “he will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice”).

Webster’s acknowledges that to some people uses 1 and 2 are opposites, and that many see the second use as a misuse. Use 2, Webster’s points out, “is pure hyperbole to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.”

Use 1 is the only proper use of literally. If a movie is three and a half hours long, we might say “the movie was literally three and a half hours.” Literally is appropriate here because without it some might assume we are exaggerating, that the movie merely felt that long. Literally allows us to establish that it actually was three and a half hours long. “I literally lost 10 pounds last week” is also appropriate, because without literally, it might be assumed we are exaggerating.

Abuse of use 1 is common; literally is thrown in with all kinds of claims that do not require it. For example, there is no need to say, “The movie was literally two hours long,” because most movies are about that length. If there is no reason to think the reader or listener will doubt the literal or near-literal truth of a statement, literally is superfluous. For many, literally has taken the place of the exclamation point. It is not uncommon to hear, “That was literally the best sandwich I’ve ever had.” In the crazy world we live in, there is something commendable about mustering up that much enthusiasm for a sandwich, but leave literally out of it.

Which brings us to use 2, literally as virtually for the purpose of emphasis. I can’t think of a single example that validates Webster’s use 2 for literally. Their example, “He literally turns the world upside down,” requires no literally for emphasis. We know that no one can literally turn the world upside down. It is a physical impossibility. It is clear that this is a hyperbolic, figurative statement. Adding literally here only causes confusion — it adds no emphasis.

And using it this way destroys the ability of literally to serve its function in the same context. If, for example, we were discussing the plot of a Superman comic book, we might need to describe a scene in which Superman “literally turns the world upside down.” The literally here would not be for emphasis. We would mean that Superman did indeed turn the world upside down, in a real, physical way. After performing such a feat, if you were Superman, wouldn’t you be a little peeved if people, even after hearing that the story is literally true, thought it was an exaggeration? Literally exists precisely to make these distinctions, to make it clear that such-and-such really happened, even if it sounds fantastic.

“He wallowed in literal hell” might be appropriate if we are discussing a fictional character and want to be sure the reader understands that we are not referring to hell in any figurative sense, but that he indeed wallowed in the underworld with devils and pitchforks and all the rest. Phrases such as “It was a literal hell on earth” are not only incorrect, but cumulatively damage the English language. The literal hell is not on earth. Any description of earth as hell, no matter how horrid, is figurative. Earth is being compared to hell to give a sense of the horror. It is a metaphor to get across a point. Literally allows us our poetry without guilt, because when we mean to indicate the literal hell, we can.

This misuse of language has moved beyond the broadcast booth at football games and to the highest levels of academia and politics. At a conference I attended, a researcher with a Ph.D. described the oratory and charismatic powers of a colleague by saying, “He had them literally eating out of the palm of his hand.” Of course, all of the editors in the room held back laughter to avoid losing their jobs. In the interests of public safety and disease control, I sincerely hope that no one literally ate out of anyone’s hand.

The power and beauty of the English language are due largely to metaphor and poetic use. There is no reason such necessary and valuable (and entertaining) use of language needs to interfere with communication and understanding. If anything, it should enhance it.

But no language can survive an unrestrained assault on its functional words. The English language might still be figuratively breathing, but this continued figurative decimation of literally is leading English down a figurative road to destruction.

 

This essay was first published on the original When Falls the Coliseum in 1999. It has since been slightly edited.

Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short comedic fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Oxford University Press Humor Reader, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review, PopMatters.com, Art Times, and Reason. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein. His author site is scottsteinonline.com.

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3 Responses to “‘Literally’ decimated, figuratively speaking”

  1. I’d first read this essay a few years back in its published form. I’m sure it furthered, if not created, my dislike for the misuse of “literally”. I think we should start a street gang to punish these misuses. Today, Philadelphia, tomorrow the world!

  2. Daivd Cross has a joke about this…something about sportscasters and someone saying “I literally shit my pants.” It’s a funny joke that I forget. Anyway, the misuse is literally the most annoying thing ever.

  3. Well said, Scott. This drives me crazy. Literally? OK, not so much. At least I hope not.

    The mutation of language due to common misuse is something that I spend far too much time focusing on. It played a large part in my years-long fascination with the comedy of George Carlin, who mined that very subject for some great laughs.

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