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Jots and Tittles: Literally speaking.

Britain is in crisis. An alien spaceship has crashed in London, the Prime Minister has disappeared and the Acting Prime Minister, Joseph Green, is acting very strangely. Worried by all this, General Asquith threatens to impose martial law. “Oh, I”m scared,”, says Green sarcastically. “That’s hair-raising. Literally.” At this he unzips the top of his head and reveals himself to be an alien in disguise.

Don’t worry, none of this has happened in real life. Some of you may have recognised it as a scene from a very popular British TV series. And some of you may have already guessed what this article is about.

Lift up your hair

I have no problem with the English used in this dialogue. In fact, it is deserving of special praise because it uses the word literally in exactly the right way, which is more than a lot of people seem able to manage. Even aliens, it seems, have a better grasp of the English language than some humans, who tend to use literally in comepletely the wrong way.

Hair-raising is normally used as a figure of speech to mean something that scares you a little. Dawn of the Dead is a hair-raising movie. A roller-coaster ride can be a hair-raising experience. But these things don’t normally raise our hair, although some people do claim they make their hair stand on end. Joe Green (or rather, the alien monster masquerading as Joe Green) actually removes the top of his head, unzipping it and lifting it off, so his hair really is raised.

And that is when we use the word literally (or at least, when we should use it): to indicate that a phrase which is normally figurative (or might be thought of as figurative) is not being used figuratively.

Where are your buttocks at this moment?

Many people die of laughter. Figuratively. A much smaller number of people literally die laughing: unusual but not unheard of. But there is no record of anyone ever having literally laughed their heads off — that would have made headline news. (Although, on consideration, I suppose it might already have made headline news in the National Enquirer.)

An improbably large number of people seem unaware of what literally laughed my head off actually means. It means that you laughed so hard, that your head physically detached itself from your neck. A more modern version I once spotted on an internet message board is I was literally LMAO, which, if true, means that you’ll never be able to sit down again.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should never use these expressions. I’m saying you can’t use the word literally with them.

Now we’re getting intense

My personal theory is that many people assume that literally is some kind of intensifier. An intensifier is a word or phrase that makes the meaning of something else stronger. The most common intensifier is very: a very big car is bigger than a big car.

It is probably thought that literally does something similar for figurative phrases: literally laughing your head (or other body part) off is somehow more intense than laughing it off in the usual manner. But it doesn’t: in this situation you really need to find a better idiom. Perhaps you laughed until the ceiling caved in. (Figuratively, that is.)

Things have actually got to the point where some sources have begun listing “figuratively” as one of the meanings of “literally”, thus turning it into a contradictanym — a word that means one thing and its opposite (a much-cited example is cleave, which can mean “split” or “adhere”, depending on the context). English has a few contradictanyms (and a lot of words that can be made to look like contradictanyms if you are prepared to stretch a point); we don’t need any more.

Gory, gory, hallelujah!

In an attempt to cure people of this habit, here is a list of idioms with the addition of the word “literally”. Try to imagine these things happening in real life, exactly as they are described. This exercise is not for those with a nervous disposition.

  • He was literally born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
  • My eyes were literally pinned to her dress.
  • She literally tore them off a strip.
  • I want you to keep your eyes peeled — literally.
  • He literally put his nose out of joint.
  • They literally had our guts for garters.
  • He was literally eating his heart out.

Readers’ comments

Simon, originally from England but now in Sweden, wrote to say that he still remembers a football commentator saying, “All hell literally broke loose.” As Simon said: “I would like to have been at that match to see if the riders of the apocolypse were actually on the pitch!” Wouldn’t we all?

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