Eloquent English #4


The meaning of the possible symbols that I use in the is meme-
When a quotation or example shows a misuse , it is clearly marked as wrong by means if a cross: ❌
And if it is a doubtful or ill-advised usage, it is marked with a question mark: ❓, or a double question mark: ❓❓
TODAY’S WORD: Literally
Poor word! It could hardly state its meaning more clearly- ‘in a strict sense,  exactly according to the letter’. And yet it is now widely used as an intensifier in assertions that are figurative or metaphorical- precisely not literal. To say She literally worked 12 hours a day for six days in a row is presumably an accurate reflection of reality. To say ❌She literally worked 12 hours a day seven days a week is presumably not the literal truth: why then suggest it is?
The literal semse of a phrase such as to bleed to death is ‘to die through loss of blood’, as in The victim of the blast did not die immediately, but bled to death before the help arrived. A figurative sense of to bleed to death might be ‘to go bankrupt through inefficiency or wasteful business practices’, as in The company slowly bled to death under the deplorable management of my brother-in-law.
To suggest that the figurative sense might be the literal sense, merely for the sake of emphasis, as in ❌The company literally bled to death under his management, is to abuse language as blatantly as it is possible to do. Yet the temptation has proved irresistible to great writers, competent journalists, and the man in the street alike. Sometimes, literally can perhaps be taken to mean ‘as it were’ or ‘so to speak’, and accepted as a succinct synonym of these phrases:

But there was a change im Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed: without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.
              -F. Scott Fitzgerald (U.S.), The Great Gatsby

In a community where facial tics were commonplace, his were exceptional;  they literally pursued each other across his face like snipe.
                -S.J. Perelman (U.S.) Baby, It’s Cold Outside

In the next example, however,  the idea of intensity could nore appropriately be conveyed by really than by literally– though once again really could not be meant in a literal way:

Boonie Berman is one of the America’s top models and the present hit of the season. She works constantly for the leading fashion magazines, struts down the catwalks of multi-millionaire designers and literally takes rakes in the money being photographed for major advertising campaigns.
             – Sally Brampton, The Observer

The following amusing extract shows how misusing literally can lead to downright absurdities:

Sir Brian Young. . . quoted a letter from a vicar who, on his retirement, had been described by the parish magazine as ‘literally a father to every child in the parish’. ‘Still the practice goes on,’ Sor Brian said. ‘When Mrs Thatcher appeared on French television,  a reporter said admiringly, “There on the screen was the Prime Minister literally seducing her interviewer.”…’
                -The Listener

One particularly effective and quite acceptable use of literally is when both the literal and metaphorical senses apply. A millionaire who began his business-life selling second-hand clothing might be described as having gone literally from rags to riches. Here is a striking examole of this clever play on words:

For such people, the vast verse epic ‘Pantaloon’ which he completed after a quarter of a century’s work and of which only four parts have so far founf a publisher, has remained literally a clised book. But distinguished voices have shared the author’s confidence in its worth.
                 -Robert Kee, The Observer



Author: Vrushali

I'm a under grad student on the path to become an accountant but that doesn't stop me from loving books, art and writing among many other things. I blog about all of them and all things that make life worth living. Check out my

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