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This Word is Killing Me, Literally

A contranym is our latest linguistic compulsion

By Victoria Ilyinsky, Crimson Staff Writer


You can’t help but notice that the new “like” is the word “literally.” Bothering parents and professors alike, it punctuates our stories and pops up during most conversations. For those fortunately unfamiliar with the recent overuse of this adverb, note several examples:

“I was literally so tired that I turned on Grey’s and fell asleep.” (Translation: shuteye in front of Dr. Shepard? She must be absolutely exhausted.)

There were literally like a million people waiting for ellipticals in Hemingway after they closed the MAC.” (Technically speaking, there were perhaps 20 people waiting for the ellipticals. Also, closing the MAC is a disastrous idea.)

Finally, “The land literally flowed with milk and honey.” (More on this later.)

“Literally” has several traditional definitions: “strictly adhering to basic meaning,” “word for word,” and “without exaggeration.” It comes from the Latin word littera, or “letter,” denoting exactitude and simplicity.

But “literally” has come to mean just the opposite; it suggests exaggeration, intensity, and insistence. Perhaps this formerly literary term is thus doomed to the ranks of “seriously” or “really,” words that once signified sincerity and now point only to emphasis: “Seriously. I’m going to live in Lamont café. It’s really the best thing ever.” (Overheard in the smoothie line at the Greenhouse.)

Or “literally” could simply be one of a long list of English contranyms or “Janus words,” named after the two-faced Roman god. These are words that have contradictory meanings. My favorites include “fast” (moving rapidly and bound to position), “buckle” (to fasten and to come undone, collapse), and “impregnable” (able to be impregnated and impossible to enter).

Not only is “literally”one of many misleading terms, but it’s also had multiple meanings for quite a while. The third aforementioned quote–the land literally flowed with milk and honey–comes straight from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. And who doesn’t remember Fitzgerald’s description of Jay Gatsby: “He literally glowed?” But neither was the town of Plumfield overrun with food-stuffs nor our favorite social climber actually luminescent. [EDITOR'S NOTE APPENDED]

So the misuse of “literally” is nothing new. But it’s not the misuse that leaves me confounded; instead, the overuse, the compulsive use, the far too common use–they are driving me crazy and making me wonder: Why such repetition?

It’s not just a trend in colloquialism. “Literally”has popped up in The Crimson too: A swimmer was noted to have been “literally riding the heels” of her teammate during a meet last week. I can’t even visualize this supposed occurrence, swim-cap and all. Another reporter, summarizing a medical study that showed how dangerous long medical shifts are, wrote, “A resident working a 30-hour shift might, by the end, quite literally be acting drunk.” Upsetting, huh? Not only is your doctor exhausted but pretending to be intoxicated as well.

And when an NFL sportscaster said last month, talking about the Giants’ comeback victory over the Eagles, that the winners “had literally put a bullet” in coach Andy Reid’s head, I had a feeling that there wasn’t much shooting going on. He did, however, manage to catch my attention. Considering I thought the Eagles were merely a 1970s rock band, it’s clear that the sportscaster’s sensationalism actually worked. [EDITOR'S NOTE APPENDED]

Yet his approach is far from unique. Extremism and exaggeration are principal parts of everyday life: From sports to style and from language to theology, maximums are considered a must. From the NFL to CSI, extremism is on the rise and instant gratification assumed (faster replays, much more gore). And there are extreme headlines and exciting tabloids, quicker Internet and bigger holidays – so it’s really no surprise that we find it difficult to gain attention in the mundane of the everyday and thus resort to stretching the truth. A lot.

But the effect of frequent exaggerations is two-fold: Not only does it lead to one-upmanship (my description of last night’s party is more ridiculous than yours), but also causes us to second-guess the stories of others. We’ve become accustomed to lies, thus used to expressing doubt, and subsequently we have a need to legitimize our own tales and earn credibility for our own anecdotes – enter the ubiquitousness of “literally.” We hope it grounds exaggerations, convinces peers of the truth, and grants us validity among widespread hyperbole. “Literally,” however, manages to merely muddle the message, confusing listeners with its very nature of contradiction.

Despite this inefficacy, I fear that the excessive use of “literally” may prove to be a permanent feature of our prose, since embellishment is certainly here to stay. But can’t we all make one small step toward conversational sanity? Take note of the Latin adage, Voluptates commendat rarior usus. It means “Moderation in all things,” literally.

Victoria Ilyinsky '07 is a Romance languages and literatures concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.


The Oct. 16, 2006 opinion column, "This Word is Killing Me, Literally," failed to reference the Slate Magazine article "The Word We Love to Hate" as a source for its citation of quotes from "The Great Gatsby" and "Little Women." The Crimson regrets this error.

-Michael B. Broukhim '07 and Matthew S. Meisel '07


This past Monday The Crimson published an editors' note regarding Victoria Ilyinsky's Oct. 16 column, "This Word is Killing Me, Literally," stating that the piece failed to reference the November 2005 Slate Magazine article "The Trouble With Literally" as a source for its citation of quotations from "The Great Gatsby and "Little Women."

Since the publication of that note, we have continued to investigate whether the piece properly cited all of its sources. We still believe that Ilyinsky's argument in the piece was her own. We have also concluded, however, that two other parts of the opinion piece also do not meet The Crimson's standards for source citation, and it is on this basis that we have decided to retract the column.

First, Ilyinsky's citation of a sportscaster's use of the word "literally" during a Giants-Eagles NFL football game implies that the author heard the commentary herself. In fact, she learned of the account by reading about it on the web log "Literally, A Web Log."

Second, Ilyinsky's discussion of so-called "Janus words" may draw from a similar discussion in the Slate article. Both articles discuss Janus words, and provide three different examples of them. While the examples are different in each column, their presentation is very similar.

As a result, we have decided to discontinue Ilyinsky's bi-weekly column, "On Our Language." We apologize to our readers for the improper citations. We continue to be committed to accuracy and honesty in our reporting, and we continue to work with our writers to ensure proper citation in all of our content.


William C. Marra, Michael B. Broukhim, Matthew S. Meisel

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