Ever eaten something so spicy that it literally set your mouth on fire? That must have been traumatic. Or been so mad that you literally exploded? Talk about a mood killer.
The problem with our wee friend ‘literally’ is that it has lost its literal meaning. So often you’ll hear about something that ‘literally’ happened. In actual fact, unless it happened exactly the way it’s being described, the situation is figurative.
Literally, by definition, means ‘exactly and without exception’. However, since the early 20th Century, the term has been widely used to as an intensifier of words like ‘ virtually’ or ‘in effect’. So unless you didn’t stop wriggling for a full eight hours, you didn’t literally toss and turn all night. Nor is it likely, no matter how hungry you might be, that you will ever end up literally eating a horse.
As is expected though, with the way our language tends to evolve, it’s unlikely that the correct term ‘figuratively’ will ever beat out a hundred years of misuse and come back into vogue.
Sigh. You win, society.
But next time you’re out for a Spicy Chicken Masala, just for fun, try: “My mouth is figuratively on fire!”. You may get the odd look or two, but at least you’re doing it correctly. You’re also mixing it up with an alliteration. Literacy points all round.