Friday, March 7, 2008

The "literally" cliche -- literally driving us crazy

Ordinarily, GTOTD wants to keep government out of our lives, but the Department of Homeland Cliches (DHC) must put an end once and for all to the gratuitous and witless use of "literally" that has been literally hackneyed to death like a London cab horse and is literally driving us crazy.

In a delightful excerpt in ESPN: The Magazine from Man in the Middle, John Amaechi's memoir of being a gay man in the NBA, Amaechi and co-writer John Bull can't resist the inevitable, predictable line, "Since I was reluctant to venture out too far, everyone came to my closet -- literally." Bud-a-dum. (That's a rimshot, as in the drum sound that follows Henny Youngman saying, "Take my wife, please.")

Think how much wittier, more thoughtful -- and fresher! -- that line would be without the "literally."

Because this story has so many gems in it, the DHC will not banish Amaechi to our Cliche Guantanamo. Amaechi deflected those who suspected he was gay by explaining that he is English, which of course satisfied everyone. His cover was blown for sure when a friend noticed that Amaechi had a) a rainbow towel in his bathroom, b) fresh-cut flowers in his hall, and c) Karen Carpenter on his CD player. "Ryan said I must be the only jock in history to towel off with multiple colors singing along to "We've Only Just Begun." (Maybe Amaechi could have claimed at that point to be French!)

The DHC will bring in snarling dogs to post-hurricane newscasters reporting that a storm "literally blew this town off the map." Actually, those Mississippi towns are still on the map. It's in reality that Katrina blew so many towns into oblivion.

We have some grammatical electrodes for hoops hagiographers who laud basketball centers as "literally standing head and shoulders above the rest." Well, yes, that's why they're centers--they're taller than everyone else!

The DHC will also give a Holy Man pass to Bishop T.D. Jakes for his quote in a wonderful Atlantic Monthly profile, in which he recalls the hard times after his job at a Union Carbine plant disappeared: "I was literally cutting grass and digging ditches, trying to get diapers for my kids." Well, yes, people do those jobs, especially if they're laid off from the sole employer in a small West Virginia town.

The idea of using the word "literally" is that it is a highly unlikely figurative expression that had somehow come to life -- like, say, a cow literally jumping over the moon.

But even when this expression is used in a way that makes sense and could be considered clever, we must be resolute and stand firm in declaring it a danger to the freshness of our language -- as in the lede of a New York Times feature about wind energy: "It's hard to be in a business where you literally---as well as figuratively---are tilting at windmills."

Bring on the water boards! Literally!

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