A Literal Truce Over The Misuse Of 'Literally'

Can we talk about the word "literally." NPR's Rachel Martin talks with David Haglund of Slate. (This piece originally aired March 10, 2014, on Weekend Edition.)

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to take a moment now to talk about a word - yep, one word. Maybe you use it all the time, or maybe you hear people use the word, and it drives you up the wall. I'm talking about the word literally.

Let's get one thing out of the way quickly. According to Webster's, the NPR dictionary of record, the original definition of literally is - OK. Here it is. Literally, adverb - in a literal sense or manner. Actually. So, think of it as the opposite of figuratively. But maybe you've turned on a TV in last few decades, watched a show like "Seinfeld" or "Parks and Recreation" and that's not quite the usage you hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JERRY SEINFELD: (as Seinfeld) The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it. It's too high.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

ROB LOWE: (as Chris Traeger) Dr. Harris, you are literally the meanest person I have met.

MARTIN: So, it's a little bit off-definition. Like a lot of people, Vice President Joe Biden loves using literally this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In the first days - literally the first day...literally stood...literally...but literally making...we're literally...not figuratively, it's literally in your hands...and it literally amazes me they don't understand that.

MARTIN: This word is polarizing. So we did a completely unscientific survey at our office.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I despise the world literally. I despise the way it is used.

MARTIN: I didn't even have to bait you on this. You just went.

INSKEEP: No, no, no. It was literally an outrage.

MARTIN: Can you use the word in sentence?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: The government of Venezuela has said they are literally not going to lose Hugo Chavez. They're going to embalm him. And he'll be sitting in a glass box somewhere for the people to go look at.

MARTIN: So, I think that's correct.

WERTHEIMER: I should hope after 40 years of broadcasting.

MARTIN: You never use that word that way.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I try not to do it on air.

MARTIN: You're aware of it. You're conscious of it.

CORNISH: Yes, yes, yes because it's a thing. Even, see, saying it's a thing is a thing.

MARTIN: That's Steve, Linda and Audie. As for me, well I know it's wrong, but I think it's just satisfying to say it that way, even if other people don't like it.

DAVID HAGLUND: That's what you sometimes hear from people. They say you're using it wrong.

MARTIN: David Haglund is an editor at Slate Magazine.

HAGLUND: And it's true that people are using it in a way that is different from its original meaning. But we do that with all kinds of words. I mean, the most relevant comparison is the word really. People say, oh, I'm really starving, they're not really.

MARTIN: And some dictionaries have even adopted the common usage of literally as a second definition. And that bugs some people.

HAGLUND: These things change, and we don't have that much control over them. You hear people using language in a way that you don't like. And I think some part of you knows that there's not really anything you can do about that. And that's frustrating. And so people start shouting about it.

MARTIN: So, love it or hate it, can we just call a literally truce?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARKS AND RECREATION")

LOWE: That idea is literally the greatest idea I have ever heard in my life.

MARTIN: And B.J. Leiderman literally wrote our theme music. This is NPR.

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