Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 23 20:04:44 UTC 2010

I wanted to come back to this one more time--I am sure it's been
mentioned before (and if not here, surely elsewhere-- ). I hate doing it from on-air comments that I
overheard and cannot reproduce as evidence, but so it goes.

There is a general tendency--I want to say "recently" but want to avoid
a potential recency bias--to use the word "literally" as an emphasis on
top of the already figurative use.

Last night, several people were sitting in a room talking, with TV
noises in the background. It must have been FoxNews on some topic (not
health-care related, for a change--don't ask me what I was doing in a
room with Fox News in the background). Suddenly, most of us stopped
talking about whatever topic we were discussing and switched to the
discussion of "literally" because the use of it by some talking head on
TV was just so jarring. Specifically, what prompted our discussion was
the comment, "She's literally stomping on the Constitution!" which
immediately generated chuckles. The only worse cliche of this kind would
have been to say that someone is "literally stomping on human rights".
This abuse is certainly common among dim-witted news anchors, but it has
also popped up in situations such as this one--where an impassioned
advocate wants to strengthen the rhetorical point but runs out of words
to do so.

In fact, this is not even the first time "literally stomping on the
Constitution" occurred on Fox News within just one week!
> “Is that House Democrats are attempting to put wording into the bill
> that would not allow any portion of the bill to be repealed at
> anytime, by any Congress. Actually ANY bill can be repealed,” Sean
> said angrily. “*They are literally stomping on our Constitution*.”

And the phrase does seem to be particularly popular in political
context, especially when it comes to "stomping on the Constitution".
> Deutsch uttered his slur Monday evening while appearing on CNN’s Joy
> Behar Show. He was ranting against the Republican Party and Tea Party
> activists, whom, Deutsch charged, are somehow “angry,” “vitriolic,”
> and “racist.” Thus, *to hide the party’s true colors — both literally
> and figuratively, Deutsch said — the GOP is fielding ethnically
> fraudulent candidates like Rubio*.
[The "slur" in question was "this coconut Rubio" in reference to Marco
Rubio--I guess, the equivalent of "watermelon" in another context, or
> Made tee-shirts for protesters with the First Amendment on front and
> back so that when the police stomp the people down, and they will,
> they will have to *literally stomp on the First Amendment to the
> United States Constitution*.

This is somewhat different from the use "almost literally" which is just
the wrong word order--switch this to "literally almost" and most of the
time it fixes the semantics. For example (hypothetical), someone might
say, "This new invention almost literally lets you leap buildings in a
single bound." Here's one of the first top hits from a search:
> Tom DeLay hits bottom -- almost literally -- on "DWTS"

This can't be fixed just by switching the two words in question, but a
little more gets an "almost literally" meaningful sentence: Tom Delay
literally almost hits bottom on 'DWTS'--implying that he nearly landed
on his butt, which would be a "literally" hit bottom.

If you think I am reaching, consider that there are 376K raw ghits for
"almost literally" and 61K raw ghits for "literally almost".


PS: I thought I'd include a couple of more interesting examples.

In the first, one can at least excuse the non-native speaker, but I
doubt it sounds any better in the native Dutch. But I kind of like the
idea of "literally imagining". (Yes, I know, "kind of" is not much
better than "literally"--live with it!) He's literally going through the
steps--I am just not convinced I can call that "imagining"
(misapplication of "gedankenexperiment"?).
Date: Mon, 06 Jul 1998
From: Jaakko van 't Spijker
> Our next move is *to literally imagine what would happen* if we just
> applied your constitution to the gemeente Amsterdam. As if it were a
> scientific experiment where substance A (Amsterdam 1.0) is exposed to
> a force or radiation B (the constitution). In the course of time, A
> will change.

This one is a bit more complex--there is a guarantee that something
cannot physically happen--except, of course, it can.
> I worked for 24 yrs in the federal govt as a supervisor and *I PROMISE
> you that it's literally impossible to fire anyone* because of laziness
> or incompetence. You can fire them for theft or physical violence, but
> if they're a lousy worker you just have to work with them. And they
> know it! The govt is layered with dead wood.

The rhetorically point remains the same--"literally" means what someone
else might convey by "virtually" or "practically", and all of them
meaning "almost". This is the same issue in the next one, which is quite
> PAT O`BRIEN, FORMER SPORTSCASTER: No. And I love Stephen A. Smith,
> we`re good friends. But, you know, the level of hypocrisy in this
> thing has been astounding, maybe not surprising. Everybody, including
> me, everybody wanted him to come forward, let`s see your face, look
> into the camera, talk. And then he does this, literally stops the
> country, stops the stock market, stops CNN, HLN, ESPN, stops everything.

The irony is that there is a more interesting usage in the same transcript:
> SMITH: "The View" should pick up on this subject because I`ve said
> this to you before and I`m going to tell it to you again. You`ve got
> *a lot of mistresses out there that literally act like they`re the
> wife*. Like, "Oh, my God. There`s another mistress than me?

I think, I can buy into this being "literally" true...

It's almost as if there is a snowclone "literally X", where X is a
metaphor that is not likely to be *literally* true ("stop the country",
"stomp on the Constitution", "trample civil rights", "starve myself to
death", "reach for the stars"). This is despite the fact that some of
these things can "literally" happen--one can hit rock bottom, act as a
wife, jump the shark.

The American Dialect Society -

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