7 May 2006

This Is Literally You're Worst Nightmare!

Where do I stand on this title? There is the obvious mistake added for a bit of a laugh but the real crux of the matter is the third word, literally. We all know what literal means, therefore literally means "in a strict sense". This is not however, really your worst nightmare. Literally has, for over 100 years, been used as an intensive (before a figurative expression), sadly taking the exact opposite of the real word. For example, "he missed the goal by literally 100 miles" is not in fact literal, it's the opposite of it, figurative, yet we use the word literal-ly to exaggerate the expression. Possibly surprisingly, I'm quite happy for this double-yet-opposite meaning in this case as I like to intensify my figures of speech. [It's not that stupid, what you are saying is "it's literally a "]
There are more instances of similar peculiarities of the English language, such as skinned and seeded both having the opposite meaning to themselves. Is it a verb? No. Is it a noun? No. It's verb-noun! "Is this fish skinned?" "Yes". What does that mean? Does the fish have skin (noun) or has it been skinned (verb). On the other hand it is never acceptable to to add an intensive before a literal statement, nor is it ever acceptable to use the simile "like" as an intensive before any statement, e.g. he was like, a hundred metres away!

If any of the above is for you, hopefully so should Never Mind the Full Stops, a new BBC Four show about all things linguistical. It starts this Thursday and runs for 8 weeks. If you don't catch it at 10.30pm you can catch the repeat on Tuesdays at the earlier time of 8.30pm.

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