Beside myself with anger, but not literally so

Most folks have some “word peeves” – some common use of language that irritates them to no end. What I can’t abide is the word “literally” used to mean “figuratively,” as in “I was literally beside myself in anger.”

What I didn’t realize until recently is that this language atrocity is nothing new; I’m just one of a long line of folks who have been annoyed by “misuse” of literally for generations (literally!). From

Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example “The 300,000 Unionists… will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself – if it did, the word would long since have come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively” – but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

So although I will continue to be annoyed by hearing “literally” used as an intensifier, I cannot claim it’s proof that the English language is being degraded. The language isn’t degrading; it came out of the box this way.

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36 Responses to Beside myself with anger, but not literally so

  1. 1
    Avram says:

    Nor is “literally” the first word to suffer this fate. The same thing happened to “really”.

  2. 2
    ---k. says:

    Not that its going to phase me to much, but in pouring over you’re piece, I note an error–theirs a disconnect between what you meant the title to say and how it literally reads. The phrase ought to be “Beside myself.”

    Not “Besides myself.”

    Irregardless: yes. A funny piece about an all-too-real phenomena. (Doo-doo dah-doo-doo.)

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Oh yeah? Well, you should have said “your piece,” instead of “you’re,” and “too” rather than “to.” Hmmph!

    (Just kidding, thanks for the correction. But you’re normally such a careful writer, I can’t resist the chance to catch you out with two such… dare I say, common? … errors.)

  4. 4
    Joel says:

    My peeve is using an adverb when a plain verb will do as in “I was beside myself in anger” or better: “I was mad.”

    Metaphor is nice, too, but be original!

  5. 5
    qB says:

    Maybe he was doing it on purpose? One of my many peeves: a phenomenon, some phenomena. (Also medium and media, but the list could get out of control)

    But I can’t spell. Or, to be more accurate, I have great difficulty with spelling. So I can’t advise anyone about writing!

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Well, since he also messed up “theirs,” I’m pretty positive he did do it on purpose. Clever K-man.

  7. 7
    bean says:

    Well, since he also messed up “theirs,” I’m pretty positive he did do it on purpose. Clever K-man.

    Is that why he used the word irregardless, too? ( :-p that’s my word peeve)

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Clever, clever K-man…

  9. 9
    Mr Ripley says:

    The legislative profession seems enamored of the abuse of “literally” –characteristic was the Congressman who argued during Iran-Contra that the it was okay to violate the Boland Amendment because “This is legislation that the president was FORCED by Democrats to sign at the eleventh hour of the eleventh minute of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, LITERALLY with a GUN to his head!” I wondered then why they didn’t open another investigation to find out who’d came into the Oval Office armed on Veteran’s Day and made minutes bigger than hours.

  10. 10
    ---k. says:

    Ah, but you missed my use of “phase” when I should have said “faze,” and “pouring” when I should have said “poring”–two misusages that grate on my nerves, and are all too common in web-writing, for some reason. (Its and it’s is all too common everywhere. I weep for the apostrophes of today.)

    The use of “disconnect” as a noun I threw in as a lagniappe. (The spread of this horrid nounification is the highest crime and misdemeanor of which Clinton was–and is–guilty, to my mind. –Well, that, and the Defense of Marriage Act. Oh, and welfare reform.)

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    Actually, I noticed “faze” and “poring,” but decided that cataloging your errors was just a way of rubbing the egg even more firmly into my face. :-p

    Oh, and the Iraq sanctions.

  12. 12
    Daryl McCullough says:

    About the sentence “I was literally beside myself in anger.”

    I think that in this sentence, the word “literally” is being used figuratively. You shouldn’t take it literally.

    I don’t think that there is any real ambiguity when someone says “He literally bit my head off” or whatever. It only becomes a problem if someone really did bite my head off. Then I would have a hard time convincing anyone that I wasn’t just being metaphorical.

  13. 13
    Bob Rouse says:

    The word that always irritates me is “basically”, as in “well, basically, we’ll need to basically overuse certain words in a failed attempt to basically appear intelligent, basically”.

    I once attended a seminar where everyone was requested to vent their pet peeves. I – of course – mentioned “basically”.

    Immediately after, the clueless woman at the next table began with “well, basically…” (no, she was not trying to be ironic). There were numerous smirks and stifled laughs.

    Fortunately, this one seems to be falling out of fashion, so basically, I might have one less thing to make my blood boil…

  14. 14
    Simon says:

    Monty Python’s Flying Circus once had a sketch parodying in-depth TV analysis of issues, which included an interview with a man described as President of the British “Well, Basically” Club. Naturally, he began by saying “Well, basically …”

    Every time I find myself using that phrase, I think of that sketch. I usually stop and say, “Sorry, I seem to have joined the British ‘Well, Basically’ Club.”

  15. 15
    Beerzie Boy says:

    I share your peeve. My other favorite is “near-miss,” which should mean “hit” and not “miss.” I mean, if it was a “near-hit,” would it realy mean “hit?”

  16. 16
    --k. says:

    See? Now. Unlike my pet peeves (as noted above), this twitterpated mamby-pambying about is merely a sign of either a) mistaking the construction, or b) insisting on a bewildering degree of literalism and unhyperbole. (Would unhyperbole be merely “bole”?)

    “Near miss,” after all, is a case in which “near” is used as an adjective modifying the “miss,” and not some sort of bastardized contraction of “nearly a miss”; it’s “near” as in “nearby,” as in a location in space, and not “near” as in “almost.” As for Amp’s bugaboo re: “literally,” well. If one can’t appreciate the sly humor in hyperbolizing that particular adverb, one has a stick lodged somewhere in the general vicinity of one’s fundament. –All of which is fine for pedantry, and dandy; in fact, it’s a requirement. But let’s all admit to the game being played.

    Confusing “phase” and “faze,” though? Instant blackballing, in my book. Misplacing apostrophes? Grounds for termination with extreme prejudice. These are matters of an altogether different (and vastly more important) order.

  17. 17
    Ampersand says:

    Well, Kip, one difference is that I was discussing spoken language. The pet peeves you’re walking around the park exist only in written langauge.

  18. 18
    jared says:

    have you heard david cross’ do his “literally” bit? it’s hilarious. he talks about how it’s consistently misused by sports announcers who say things during football plays like, “he LITERALLY ripped the guy’s head off!”

    or when someone says, “it was so funny i literally shit my pants.”

    he’s all, “gross, dude. what’d you do with your pants?”

    then he segues into one of MY pet peeves: when people refer to themselves in the third person. ya know, jared greer has got to do what’s best for jared greer…

    xoxo, jared

  19. 19
    --k. says:

    Amp: “Well, Kip, one difference is that I was discussing spoken language. The pet peeves you’re walking around the park exist only in written langauge.”

    Me: “[The pet peeves I’m walking around the park] are matters of an altogether different (and vastly more important) order.”

    The Prosecution rests, Your Honor.

  20. 20
    language hat says:

    You’ve hit on one of my peeves as well. No matter how much I play the objective linguist and tell people language change is inevitable and usages are not good or bad, the misuse (yes, I said “misuse,” dammit) of “literally” drives me up the fershlugginer wall. Figuratively, that is.

  21. 21
    --k. says:

    (Taking a brief moment to note that while the slyly ironic hyperbole of using “literally” when it isn’t literally meant is perfectly defensible, using it badly is not. Perhaps one ought to redirect one’s opprobrium toward those who are, shall we say, overly enamored of the turn of phrase? Hate the sinner’s profligacy, and not so much the sin?

    (Also, that it would have been funnier if I’d said the Persecution rests. L’espirit d’escalier, and all that.)

  22. 22
    Joel says:

    No one has mentioned “basically” among the demons.

  23. 23
    bean says:

    Joel, what do you mean? I see 2 responses here that talk about “basically” — so you must be referring to something else.

  24. 24
    Elle says:

    As you say, most folks have a few “word peeves.” My evidence? This is the most heavily commented post on Alas today! I found the same thing with my own recent rant about linguistic abuses.

  25. 25
    Joel says:

    Too much to read, I guess, Bean. :)

  26. 26
    David Harkins says:

    the backlash against the horrifically abused “basically” is finally crossing the pond.

    ok, so “crossing the pond”‘s 15 minutes of fame are probably up…come to think of it, the abuse of the “15 minutes of fame” cliche is also nearing the point of inducing vomiting and/or shingles…

  27. 27
    carla says:

    Okay, I have to join in: “IMPACT’ IS NOT A VERB. Got it?

    And I, too, mourn the misuse of apostrophes; the its/it’s confusion drives me nuts. (Only figuratively, though.)

  28. 28
    tony says:

    your sit sucks,it defenitions are inadecute and incompedent. totaly useless

  29. 29
    tony says:

    sorry, “your site sucks””

  30. Looks like Bill O’Reilly’s been doing vodka shots and slumming on the ‘net again. I need a blog so I can attract Big Media Stars on drunken benders, too. “tony,” indeed…

  31. 31
    dave says:

    The one that rattles my cage is “I could care less.” Oh, you could, could you? Well, then, in addition to telling you that I think you’re a sack of shit, I’ll have you know that I consider your mother, father, and dog to be sacks of shit as well. Oh, I see: you still could care less? OK, well, to illustrate my sentiments, I’ll grab this here bag of horse manure and liberally sprinkle its contents over the heads of you, your parents, and your pet.

    A degraded language? I think not. More like a degraded populace. Then again, you probably couldn’t care less.

  32. 32
    Josh says:

    I’m all for persnicketiness and pedantry, but I read a very good argument in favor of dropping the apostrophe altogether. Unlike the comma, it has no effect on oral communication. It can go!

  33. 33
    Dundee says:

    I was watching the TV and I heard “basically” and “literally” both in the same sentence by one presenter. ‘Literally’ is last season’s word to abuse and ‘basically’ is the current fashion. Call me a fashion-reject but I now hate hearing these words being misused so often! I have never spoken about this peeve until now after I plunged (figuratively) both ‘basically and ‘literally’ in to Google to see if there were any others who felt such hatred for the misuse of these words. Thank you for making me feel somewhat normal and sane. I cannot believe that editors of these programmes allow literally millions of these annoying words in to basically every programme aired these days :-).

    “We basically needed four stunt cops to literally run in and catch them.”?

  34. 34
    Dundee says:

    May I add: the word “really” is used too often to exaggerate or express a statement too often. I don’t know what is wrong with the Americans and English television personalities – it’s like a disease that has swept the land of overpayment, under intelligence and ignorance. Can anyone suggest why these language misuses irritate me so much? Do I need medical attention? Was it something to do with the way I was brought up? If I hear “literally”, “basically” or “really” one more time, I am at risk of literally combusting!

  35. 35
    Dundee says:

    …and fnally (whilst I’m on my soap-box) the word “just” is overused and it irritates me most when it is unconsciously used right before “literally”. My teeth are grinding as I type. I’m going for a lie down.