Literally Figuratively

Reading this post reminded me of a conversation I had a long time ago with a friend of mine, (here I’ll call her “Peggy” — not her real name).

I don’t recall what specifically inspired it, but one day Peggy says, in reference to then-President Clinton, “I’d literally like to shoot that man!”

This pretty much nailed one of my particular linguistic pet peeves, and I couldn’t just let it go. “You literally want to shoot Bill Clinton,” I replied.

“Yes I do.”

“So… If Bill Clinton were standing here in front of you, and you had a gun in your hand, you would point the gun at him and you would pull the trigger.”

She huffs and rolls her eyes. “No of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“But that’s what you just said. ‘Literally’ means, specifically, that you’re not speaking figuratively. That you mean precisely the words you are saying.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. You read too much into things — you shouldn’t do that.”

Says I: “Generally I might agree with you, but this word, by its nature, can not be used any other way. You can’t possibly use it figuratively, because it’s very definition is ‘not figurative’.”

“Well, you’re just taking it too literally,” she sniffs.

I grin. Cue sound of crickets chirping.

“Fine,” says Peg.

2 Responses to “Literally Figuratively”

  1. PawPaw Says:

    Good post. People are nowadays unaware of the power of the spoken word. Words are nothing more than code for thought, and we have agreed over the years that certain words will mean certain things. We buy dictionaries so that we can understand the code. Words have meaning and society assigns the meaning. Some words have multiple, nuanced meanings. Some words don’t.

    The problem comes when individual members of society believe that all words have multiple meanings, and those words are interpreted in their most common usage.

    “To kill” is a fairly straightforward verb, as is “to shoot” Not much nuance there.

    The problem with Newspeak is that we often don’t know what the speaker is saying, because we don’t have the code. All we have to go on is the standard meaning of the word, and it often has a dramatically different meaning than the speaker intended.

  2. likwidshoe Says:

    She said that she would literally like to shoot him, not that she literally would shoot him.

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