Le mot juste

Sitting at dinner with a few friends the other night, one friend recounted how, when she used to babysit, she would set the clocks ahead and tell the kids it was time to go to bed; she would then raid the refrigerator. “Literally,” she said, “I would change the clocks.” Another friend—a high school English teacher—erupted across the table, not over the strange lapse in judgment the anecdote related but on a decidedly more neurotic matter. “‘Literally’?! Not ‘literally,’ Christina, Jesus! How come no one knows how to use that word? What, could you have ‘figuratively’ changed the clocks in that context? Get it right. There’s a whole blog devoted to just this matter.”

Indeed there is. And if ever the old adage “pick your battles” meant something, it does here. Who knew such an innocuous word could be the subject of so much preoccupation? And yet, as evidenced by this moment of outrage, “Literally, A Web Log” is getting its point across with a surprising degree of success.

Run by an Atlanta-based Internet nerd and a linguist, the website tracks misuse of the word in the news and on the Internet. The entries are periodic, but the site has been up for two years, so there’s plenty of material. Reading through the multitude of examples, I found myself—never particularly bothered by the misuse of the word before this site—getting really annoyed at these idiots who seem to use the word “literally” when writing as blithely as people use the word “like” when talking.

A favorite example from one of Charlottesville’s dearly departed neighbors, Jerry Falwell:
“Someone must not be afraid to say, ‘Moral perversion is wrong.’ If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America! If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women.”

Isn’t that something you’d literally like to see? I mean, that would be totally insane!