Sunday, March 13, 2011

Literally Figurative

Many people misuse the term literally when they mean figuratively. A common one is "that literally blew my mind!" Clearly, they meant figuratively. Literally/figuratively are not true opposites, but they are on opposite poles of a semantic differential (like modern-traditional). I have some friends that are particularly sensitive to this misuse. I am usually on their side. It’s not that hard to learn the difference.

But I heard an example yesterday that got me thinking. Maybe there is a middle ground. The example I heard was someone referring to an activist in Libya as “literally one of the lions of women’s rights in North Africa.” Clearly, this activist was not literally a lion. She was figuratively a lion. But what I think the speaker meant was that many people are referred to as a “lion” of this or a “lion” of that and they really don’t warrant such as a strong characterization. So what the speaker meant was that the activist’s status “literally” rose to the level of a figurative lion. This may not be exactly right, but it is not exactly wrong either.

Maybe we can attribute this same “partially correct” status to other misuses of this semantic differential as well. When someone says “that literally blew my mind” maybe they mean that the amount of surprise and wonder they felt “literally” rose to the level of figuratively blowing their mind as opposed to rising to a moderate level of wonder and surprise that many people mischaracterize as ‘blew my mind.”

I wonder if my friends who are sensitive to this misuse can chime in. Do you think I have a point here?

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