Earlier this month, after it was reported that several prominent dictionaries had expanded their definitions of literally to include “figuratively” as an informal usage, grammar-sensitive commentators launched into another wave of condemnation of the word’s expansive use.
“The dictionaries have begrudgingly bowed to the will of the grammar-averse public,” wrote The Week. “As anyone who paid attention in grade school knows, ‘literally’ means ‘in a literal or strict sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense,’ and is the opposite of ‘figuratively,’ which means ‘in a metaphorical sense.’”
Criticisms of the word’s unorthodox use are, strictly speaking, accurate. They reflect well-founded fears that society is coming to care less about clear and beautiful linguistic expression. So I often worry that I might be alone in my enjoyment of the nonsensical images created when the word is misapplied. For me, the usage can introduce gratifying little flashes of surrealism into everyday conversation.
Just think of Joe Biden’s remark last September: “We now find ourselves at the hinge of history, and the direction we turn is not figuratively, it’s literally in your hands.” Here Biden is ambitiously making two metaphors concrete: both that history can have an actual hinge and that this can be in someone’s hands. This remark conjures, for me, an image of the vice president heroically grappling, both hands (perhaps amid a howling thunderstorm), with a mighty vaulted door glowing iridescent with the sum of human destiny. It gives me a tickling look at the vice president’s imagination and his sense of the palpability of something as abstract as world history.
Intentionally or not, Biden’s usage messes with some very basic linguistic circuitry. In effect he is going beyond mere metaphor, pulverizing it and making it real. This severs the links of analogy that our minds rely on for language to remain safely within the bounds of reality. Such dismantlement creates illogical and often impossible images in the mind’s eye.
Franz Kafka nimbly blurred lines between analogy and actuality. In his stories, what would be hyperbolic metaphor already exists in real life. In “In The Penal Colony,” the military law by which prisoners live is truly inscrutable; for punishing breaches of this gibberish code, the illegible text is carved with needles on prisoner’s bodies until death. In The Trial, the court’s tyrannical and mysterious meddling has permeated all corners of the city: its proceedings and punishments can physically occur in residential tenements and attics, even the closets along the halls of Joseph K.’s office building—anywhere and everywhere.
Rather than misusing literally to construct these scenes, Kafka builds entire settings that upstage descriptive metaphor. Yet in The Metamorphosis—in which Gregor Samsa, who carries out the vermin-like existence of a traveling salesman serving the debts of his parents, turns into an cockroach—Kafka purposely misuses the word. After Gregor’s well-meaning sister removes the furniture from along the walls of his bedroom to allow Gregor to more freely crawl along the walls and ceiling; “the sight of the bare walls literally made her heart bleed,” Kafka writes. (In lieu of any knowledge of German, I’m taking Joachim Neugroschel’s translation of the story at face value.) The sort of literalized metaphor that dictates the impossible story is shrunk down to a simple turn of phrase.
In The Trial, Kafka misuses literally again. Chiding his lawyer for not helping him enough in the face of the Court’s all-encompassing hold, Joseph K. says, “this was hardly adequate assistance for a man who feels this thing encroaching upon him and literally touching him to the quick.” The Court had not yet actually groped Joseph K. in a sensitive, bodily place, as the archaic phrase would indicate, but rather has made his life miserable through continuous harassment and defamation.
Like in The Metamorphosis, in both The Trial’s overall aesthetic and specific language, Kafka confounds analogy and reality. These two tactics appear parts of the same ultimate strategy.
Far from sounding careless, Kafka’s usage appears a calculated component of his surrealist project. Even for those not attempting a great modernist novel, the effect is possible in everyday conversation. “She literally exploded with anger” is a commonly mocked example of the word’s misuse. Although it’s admittedly cliché, it still generates a gratifying cartoonish flash for me: the person in question actually blows to pieces, which is funny and also descriptive.
What make this and other misuses of the word satisfying is the images they create. To say “this is literally the worst food I’ve ever had” or “he is literally insane” does not generate an interesting scene but rather uses literally as a mere intensifier. The word’s misuse seems to lose its power when dealing with abstraction.
Perhaps if we embrace the dictionary’s adoption of the word’s informal use, it should be in a qualified sense. The rule of thumb could be simple: that if the word’s misuse doesn’t create an interesting picture, it’s probably best to use another adverb or adjective.
Whether we like it or not, dictionaries have taken a big step toward cementing the informal literally into our language. If it is really here to stay, at the very least, people could be encouraged to correctly misuse the word. With enough awareness it could someday become accepted that, rather than sowing grammatical decay, certain misuses of the word can bring to our language elements of joy.
Spencer Woodman is a New York–based writer who mainly covers labor issues. You can follow him on Twitter.