Author: isobelr

No 2 in series: Literally

No 2 in series: Literally

 “Literally” meant, in my long ago school days, “in actual fact”, “truly”, “exactly as stated.” As in:
1. A literal translation of the Latin Tempus fugit is “Time flies”. (Even though the concept of flying time is metaphorical, the translation is literal—word for word).
2. His painful sciatica literally kept him in bed for four weeks. (He never got up.)
3. Hitler planned to literally exterminate European Jews. (Yes, every one.)
Today, “literally”, in the mouths of many speakers, means “astonishingly” or ‘humongously” or “rivetingly”, or maybe “beyond all imagining”. As in:
!.I was literally blown away by his rudeness.
2. The movie was literally a headbanger.
3, Literally mountains of food are wasted every day.
Katherine Barber, editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, states that the use of “literal” and “literally” as mere metaphorical intensifiers is best avoided in formal writing and speech. She further chides that “This hyperbolic use is often wordy.” (Writers all know that wordiness is to be avoided like the plague, as are ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­clichès.)
“Literally” in its literal sense is pretty much lost. But its demise has been going on for a long time. Foster Hewitt, in his dramatic play-by-play description of Leaf games on Hockey Night in Canada (circa 1945), would exclaim, after Syl Apps scored a breakaway goal:
The fans are literally raising the roof.
The volume of noise would rise, and I would feel as if I were right there in Maple Leaf Gardens, yelling my head off. (literally?)
“I literally devoured books” said a FaceBook friend re her childhood love of reading.


#1 in the series: Things I Worked Hard to Learn that Don’t Matter Anymore

Our Grade 13 English Composition text stated that “unique” was an absolute term. It should never under any circumstances have a modifier attached to it. A thing was either unique or it wasn’t.

Such phrases as “rather unique” and “somewhat unique” were deemed abominable. “Very unique” shared this condemnation.

But I hear and read “unique” modified as above in many contexts. Even the well-respected writer and journalist, Carol Off, used a modified “unique” on As it Happens on the CBC. I heard it.

In my own writing, I have religiously steered away from any qualification of uniqueness. In fact, I’ve been afraid to call anything unique in case it really wasn’t. “Unique” is a hot potato, best avoided altogether.

Still, I don’t really see anything wrong with “almost unique.”