Literally Literal

The common misuse of the word "literally" is a pet peeve of The Awkward Adverb (shared by many other people). The word is a useful tool to clarify that a potentially metaphorical phrase is indeed not metaphorical. Consider for example, "I was riding my bicycle through the park when I was yelled at by some clown, literally." Here, "literally" stresses that the yeller was not some generic loudmouth but a person adorned with white greasepaint, a pink wig, polka dots, and comically oversized shoes. Or if someone announces he is "starving to death, literally," that person should be provided medical attention, not a slice of pizza.

All too often, however, people use "literally" as an intensifier, which leads to some disarming imagery. During a February stimulus debate, one Republican representative proclaimed, "We're literally flying blind." We assume he then rushed to the Congressional microphone and made an urgent call for a sighted pilot. And Vice President Biden recently announced, "This is a monumental project, but it's doable. It's about getting the money out in 18 months, to literally dropkick us out of this recession." In actuality, a project involving the dropkicking of 300 million Americans would be beyond monumental, not to mention quite painful.