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Posted at 10:25 AM ET, 09/07/2012

Joe Biden’s literally indefensible word


He is literally behind that podium, folks. (ERIC THAYER - REUTERS)
Well, Joe Biden spoke. Literally.

He used the word nine times, literally. (I am using “literally” in that last sentence in the same sense that Joe Biden uses it — I am not sure that the last statement I made was literally true, but if I went any longer without tossing the word “literally” in, I thought I might rupture something. Apologies, folks.)

At the beginning of the speech, which went on only slightly less long than it seemed to go on, Joe spoke about his love for his wife. But as the speech went on it became clear where his true affections lay: nestled around the word “literally.”

“The American people who literally stood on the brink of a new depression,” he said. He once used it twice in a single sentence.

You kept expecting him to literally tear open his shirt and reveal a tattoo of the word LITERALLY, literally in the middle of his chest. (“Not figuratively,” as he said at one point. “Literally.”)

Literally in many cases did not mean what he seemed to think it meant — you do not literally have the future in your hands, unless everyone else has done a lot more acid/is a far better theoretical physicist than I can hope to catch up with.

I cannot stand this word. Well, not literally. I can stand it. But I don’t like it. I don’t like it because it conjures up exciting visions and then dashes them. “It literally killed me,” people say, and then go on talking, as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I can’t stand “literally” because it is literally — literally — most often used when you mean its exact opposite. “My heart was literally in my throat.” No, it wasn’t. Figuratively, at best.

Alternatively, you use it when you mean “but not really.”

“This speech was literally the worst thing ever.” No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even close.

I hate nothing more than people who go wading off into extended metaphors without telling me that they are doing so. It leaves one perpetually on the edge of one’s seat worrying that hearts are actually in hands or that everyone is constantly about to die or be killed.

In Biden’s speech, though, literally was in the same position as the “!” after Mitt’s name on all those Tampa convention signs: strained almost to its breaking point by the kind of usage not listed on the label. It inspired the same discomfort as seeing someone stroking a cat the wrong way.

But enough of that. Now Joe can return to his warren, a shelter of old copies of the Onion, until he says something that attracts attention to his continued existence. Many hope that this will not be before the election.

By  |  10:25 AM ET, 09/07/2012

 
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