When I heard someone say, “He literally bit my head off,” I did a double take so fast that my skull nearly wrenched free of my vertebrae.
Yet she stood there whole. Clearly, her head had not literally been bitten off. I might be excused for my misunderstanding, considering that “literally” originally meant the opposite of figuratively; that is, exact, or reflective of reality.
The word “literally” once served as a border between statements and exaggerations. It could have been employed within the probably true declaration that “She spent the whole day at the DMV” to distinguish it from the likely metaphorical “She spent the whole day waiting in line for the bathroom.”
But the word is now abused by people wanting to be heard above the hyperbole dominating casual speech. Everyone seems to have 10 tons of homework nowadays. It becomes easier to tune out these exaggerations.
So, now you make outrageous claims summarizing your life’s situations and nobody seems to care. What do you do? Well, tack on the word “literally,” and now others will realize that you have something to say. Right?
Not really. As it has become assimilated into common speech, “literally” has become its own exaggeration. It screams from within a sentence like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum in the toy section of Target, demanding attention, but saying nothing of value.
Well, relatively speaking, of course, I have personally found it quite valuable to hear someone say that they’re literally going to take a 100-hour nap when they get home. It cheered me up immensely. I understand that people make mistakes, and have no problem with the word’s deliberate employment in the service of humor.
But things are getting out of hand. Soon, another word will go the way of “legit” and entirely lose its meaning. It’s a thought that has more than once given me a full-fledged anxiety attack.
And yes, I really do mean that literally.
Alexa Langen is a sophomore majoring in creative writing.