The Magazine

Literally Exasperated

Stephen F. Hayes, bratwurst.

Dec 13, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 13 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AT SOME POINT in the near future I will become a bratwurst. I owe this startling realization to Naomi Judd. The singer-actress-philosopher sat down with Larry King recently to promote Naomi's Breakthrough Guide: 20 Choices to Transform Your Life. Not content to mimic the mawkish language of the self-help set, she promised to take the conversation to the "neuroscientist level." Then she declared: "We literally become whatever we think about all day."

Literally?

Judd also speaks of "literally looking in the Mirror of Truth," and has told a national television audience, "I literally take you by the hand in this book."

I'm not sure how that works. But it is not nearly as evocative as the question actress Jamie Lee Curtis posed recently in an appearance on Canadian television. Curtis, fresh from the success of her own book, I'm Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, was making the rounds to promote her follow-up work, It's Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work My Control Panel.

"How many college students," she wanted to know, "do we hear in their freshman year literally explode? They explode with drugs and alcohol, they explode with sex, they explode with eating, they explode with not being able to get work done on time. . . . These people are exploding."

The misuse of the word "literally" is a problem not limited to female entertainers. It has been the subject of debate for decades. The literal meaning of a word or phrase, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, is one that adheres to "fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression" and is "free from exaggeration or embellishment." But the word has been misused for so long that most lexicographers have simply given up. Many dictionaries now recognize "literally" as a generic intensifier--thus justifying the use of "literally" when its opposite, "figuratively," is intended.

It is easy to see why the authorities are throwing in the towel. During lunch with an old friend, he told me about a comedian who was "literally side-splitting." And then a concert that "literally knocked my socks off." He was "literally on the fence" about gay marriage and had spent so much time at work he had "literally become one with my computer." By the end of the meal I literally had to hold my tongue to keep from saying anything. I got several strange looks.

Even people who talk for a living are apt to make this error. But I will not capitulate. I will continue to take literally literally. So when CNN's Jack Cafferty says he's "literally on pins and needles," I understand that to be an explanation for his sour (but strangely likable) early-morning demeanor.

In my literal world, Fox News Channel's Rita Cosby inadvertently provided the most compelling reason I've heard to ban cameras from the courtroom. Ticking off a litany of setbacks for Scott Peterson in his neverending trial, she came to "possibly the biggest blow of all," in which "court observers saw a key defense witness literally melt down on the stand." Over the summer, NBC's Katie Couric reported from the sweltering heat of the Athens Olympics that "it's so hot, my brain is literally fried." This admission may explain her subsequent campaign coverage.

The confusion continued even on Election Day. CNN's Ed Henry described South Dakota Democrats "literally at this hour combing through voting rolls in precincts." Few people know this, but South Dakota keeps its voter lists on hair.

When Dennis Hastert implied that Osama bin Laden might favor the Democratic ticket, John Edwards attacked his musical inclinations. "Literally, in the last 24 hours Denny Hastert, the speaker of the House, has joined the fear-mongering choir."

But bin Laden wasn't nearly as scary if you believed the analysis of Canadian TV's Beverly Thompson. When the al Qaeda leader popped up two days before the election, Thompson wondered if this meant he was "literally a jack-in-the-box."

As the presidential race tightened, Fox News Channel's John Gibson said the candidates were "literally neck and neck." Perhaps because of this proximity, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, possibly drawing on his years as a cop in Philadelphia, wanted Kerry to get physical with Bush in the debates. "I think if Kerry can make the stakes really heavy and focus on Iraq . . . he can probably wipe the smile off the president's face, literally. And that may hurt the president."

Matthews also saw something I missed in the second debate. He "thought it was interesting," he said, "when [moderator] Charles Gibson was literally steam-rollered by the president."

That must have hurt Charles Gibson. Literally.

--Stephen F. Hayes