By Curtis Honeycutt
We need to talk about “literally.” I’m afraid we’re not using it “correctly.” Now, before you accuse me of being a Captain Crankypants about this, hear me out for a minute.
Literally means exact; it means actually. So, when you say something like “I’m so hungry, I could literally eat an entire horse,” it means you could eat the entire animal, including its luxurious mane, clompy hooves and beady little eyes that see deeply into all your hopes and fears.
You probably mean something more like, “I’m so hungry, I could figuratively eat an entire horse.” You see, figuratively means metaphorically — a figure of speech. This one seems pretty black and white to me, figuratively speaking (the rule, not the horse).
The other day a friend remarked, “I was so surprised, my head literally exploded.” I could have figuratively died when I heard that. I’m not sure what my beliefs about spontaneous human combustion are, but I suppose I’d believe it if I saw it. So, if her head “literally exploded,” we’d probably be planning her funeral. It would be a super sad occasion.
As far as I can tell, it has never literally rained cats and dogs. This would be some kind of modern-day plague (watch out for the Mastiffs — they’re literally as big as horses). Neither has it ever rained literal buckets. The big bucket companies would hate that because they want you to pay them top dollar for their buckets. Literally raining buckets could put the whole bucket industry out of business. Figuratively raining cats, dogs and buckets is simply a way to exaggerate a large amount of rain falling from the sky.
Several major dictionaries have added a secondary, colloquial definition of literally: in effect, or virtually. These kinds of changes happen all the time in dictionaries, as they are doing their best to stay current on cultural vernacular. It’s the dictionary’s job to define. But, when it comes to literally and figuratively, I’m drawing a figurative line in the sand. Just because dictionaries report on how language is currently being used doesn’t make it acceptable.