The Evolution and Overuse of "Literally" in Modern Language

Sophia Moonstone

Updated Friday, May 31, 2024 at 6:00 AM CDT

The Evolution and Overuse of "Literally" in Modern Language

The Rise of "Literally" as a Verbal Crutch

In recent years, the word "literally" has undergone a significant transformation in its usage. Originally intended to describe something in the most accurate way possible, "literally" has evolved into a verbal crutch, often used as a filler word to buy time before expressing the next thought. This shift in usage has diluted the intended dramatic impact of the word, rendering it a mere hyperbole and amplifier.

Examples of this new usage are abundant. Phrases like "They were so excited their head literally exploded into a million pieces" illustrate how "literally" is now often employed to exaggerate situations rather than to provide precise descriptions. This overuse has led to sentences where the word adds no real value, such as "I literally ate this waffle today and it was literally delicious."

The Impact of Overuse on Communication

The frequent and improper use of "literally" can have several negative effects on communication. For one, it can make the speaker come off as immature. Overusing the word can lead to listeners tuning out and not taking the speaker seriously. Historically, "literally" was used to describe something with the utmost accuracy, as seen in Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," where Twain used the word sarcastically to describe Tom as "literally rolling in wealth," indicating figurative hyperbole.

Today, however, the word appears frequently in various threads and conversations, often adding no real meaning. Phrases like "literally this" have become common, though their meaning is often unclear and redundant. This overuse is frequently attributed to younger generations, particularly high school students, who use it for dramatic effect before a pause but without a significant payoff, e.g., "You won't believe this, but I literally.... found my keys."

The Call for Precise Usage

There is a growing call to revert to the original, more precise usage of the word "literally." If used correctly, "literally" would be employed sparingly, perhaps about two or three times a year, to describe situations that are indeed literal. Some argue that the complaint about the overuse of "literally" is essentially about language change, reflecting broader concerns about shifts in language and communication norms.

Nonetheless, the word "literally" is considered an expletive in modern usage, serving mainly for emphasis rather than carrying propositional meaning. Examples of its overuse include mundane contexts like finding keys or eating waffles, which do not warrant the dramatic emphasis that "literally" implies.

Understanding the evolution of "literally" and its current overuse can help us become more mindful of our language choices. By reserving "literally" for situations that truly require its precise meaning, we can enhance the clarity and impact of our communication.

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