What’s the sitch with the rampant overuse of the word ‘literally?’
The word literal is defined as, “taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory.” A useful word in many instances. I have no issue with the word itself. The English language would be worse off without it.
BUT. I do take issue with overuse of the word, and I have noticed this trend in recent decades (at least among members of the ‘millennial’ generation).
Many misguided individuals use it with the hope of adding emphasis to already descriptive statements: “I LITERALLY hate this stupid class.” “We LITERALLY stayed up all night dancing to Ace of Base on repeat.” Both statements are powerful without having to include ‘literally.’ Nobody thinks “I hate this stupid class,” is a turn-of-phrase or some clever analogy... it is clear from your words that you don’t like the class, in the literal sense.
I assume most readers don’t get chills down their spine when ‘literally’ is used where it isn’t needed. Just because a word is unnecessary doesn’t necessarily mean it is hurtful. But, in this case, perhaps you haven’t considered all the consequences. There are a couple of ways that the overuse of ‘literally’ is a problem, for the user as well as for their audience.
First of all, the haphazard use of ‘literally’ can quickly become analogous to ‘crying wolf.’ Eventually, ‘literally’ loses all of its power, and becomes almost suspicious. “There’s someone LITERALLY burning alive in that building down the street!! Help!!” Because I’ve been numbed to the word, now I’m asking questions. “Does he or she really mean literally? If they don’t, which has often been the case in my experience, what’s actually going on in that building?” All of a sudden, we are wasting time instead of trying to save this unfortunately BBQ’d soul.
Additionally, using ‘literally’ too liberally can, instead of adding emphasis, actually reduce the impact of what one is saying. “Dude, I LITERALLY ate three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches yesterday.” Now, that’s an above-average number of PB&Js for a 24 hour period. Not many would dispute that. But once ‘literally’ is exclaimed, I’m expecting to hear something I can’t fucking believe. Something where the qualifier ‘literally’ is required to communicate that, while the following statement may seem like an exaggeration, it is not; these are the actual events that truly took place. While three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is a lot, I’m not having trouble believing that. Not really that extreme. And now I’m sort of annoyed that I got all prepared to hear something mind-blowing, and all you did was eat some sandwiches. Just say, “Dude, I ate three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches yesterday.” My response to that statement would be some mix of goodwill, mild surprise, and sincere congratulations.
We here at whatsthesitch.com aren’t in the business of policing how people speak with each other. You do you. But we also feel that word choice is important, less is often more, and three sandwiches in one day isn’t that many.