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You Are Literally Never Going to Get Rid of the Word ‘Literally’

The theory behind any dive bar is: “Who gives a shit?” You’re there to drink, not admire the decor or soak up the ambiance. There needn’t be sufficient lighting or clean bathrooms. Other customers’ conversations couldn’t be more beside the point. These things literally do not matter, especially in a dive bar destined for oblivion due to bankruptcy, but the owner of a doomed New York grimehole called Continental is going down swinging with a new gag order — one that outright bans the world “literally” inside the establishment. Offenders are allowed to chug their beverage prior to ejection.

Trigger Smith, the proprietor behind the sign, says it’s more of a joke than a hard rule, though the linguistic pet peeve is real and no doubt shared by many scolds. I suppose everyone has at least one word or phrase that sounds like nails on the chalkboard — please do not say “begs the question” in my presence, ever — yet “literally” comes in for more abuse than most. What really sets our teeth on edge about it? And have we actually reached peak “literally,” as Smith’s gesture of defiance indicates?

We’ve been fretting about its usage for more than a century, as dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower wrote in Slate, quoting Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, published in 1909: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” I would guess this is roughly Smith’s take, provided we don’t interpret his Kardashian-bashing as a broader annoyance with women he considers vapid and narcissistic. Yet Bierce didn’t have a choice, and neither does Smith: “Literally” will have to be tolerated as an unavoidable crutch for communication. (By the way, if he hates the Kardashians so much, where did he learn how they talk?)

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More than solving the non-issue of a common and harmless verbal tic, laying the blame for the “literally” pandemic reveals the root prejudices that inform our worldview. As Smith’s example confirms, pedants have typically acted as though it’s a female condition, some mutation of the Valley Girl syndrome that gave us the interstitial “like.” Curiously, however, that word does opposite work: Where “like” created a special inexactness, signaling the gap between language and the word as it is, “literally” attempts to rescue us from that hesitancy and render one’s account definitive, irrefutable. If we’re going to crack down on overreaching claims to the pure and simple truth, it’s know-it-all dudes who would soon find their favorite adverb outlawed.

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Then there are the cranks who say that “literally” is a millennial affliction, which sadly comes as no surprise. We’re accused of killing everything else, so why not semantics? These complaints are built on the flawed premise that a younger generation cares what they sound like to their elders, which has never been true. Not long ago, a TV weatherman roused the contempt of Twitter by telling millennial celebrities to use punctuation, as though A) anyone is having trouble understanding celebrities on social media and B) Generation X is universally invested in proper style and grammar. If he wanted to clean up the timeline, he might well have started with 84-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who proves that the Silent Generation is a far greater threat to coherent thought as expressed on the internet. The man is infuckingdecipherable.

The hopelessness of trying to correct people on these matters is, for me, summed up in a middle school memory. Anyone who asked my math teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” was met with an arch reply: “I don’t know, can you?” she’d say. You were meant to amend the inaccurate query, substituting “may” for “can,” as befits a request for permission. But when she tried this on an oblivious classmate of mine, he considered her question for a beat or two, then puffed out his chest to declare, “Yes I can!” and strode confidently out of the room. Our teacher was laughing too hard to stop him. And I absorbed a different lesson about patterns of speech than the one she liked to impart: they’re elastic. People, not prescriptions, control the shape of dialogue.

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Some sticks-in-the-mud may genuinely care about this stuff, but fewer can entertain the core delusion that spoken English will remain what it is right now, and the true word nerds are aware that the non-literal “literally” has quite literally been with us for centuries. I suspect Continental’s curmudgeonly owner is more concerned with filtering out those he sees as undesirable personalities (he also forbids saggy pants, FYI) than policing his clientele’s vocabulary, but congrats on the free publicity, I guess! Really, in 2018, the sole legitimate gripe you could have with “literally” is that it’s become a lazy cliché with greatly diminished effect, yet those have a self-reinforcing way of sticking around. In other words, at the end of the day, it is what it is — what’re you gonna do?