Bachmann’s ‘literally’ kills

There she literally is -- no, wait, figuratively? -- no, wait -- I just don't know any more. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

There she literally is — no, wait, figuratively? — no, wait — I just don’t know any more. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On Thursday, Rep. Michele Bachmann observed on the House floor that Obamacare was “literally” terrible.

“That’s why we’re here: Because we’re saying, Let’s repeal this failure before it literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens,” Bachmann said. “Let’s not do that. Let’s love people. Let’s care about people. Let’s repeal it now while we can.”

Few things are more lethal than expanded access to health care.

Or maybe it’s the grammar that will do the people in.

LITERALLY. ACTUALLY. The news that these words are just being used indiscriminately as intensifiers has pushed Grandma to bludgeon herself to death with a literal thesaurus. Or even a metaphorical thesaurus.

Oh, just kill me. Figuratively.

One thing I do care about and wish we would not do, to show that we love people and care about people, is drag the word “literally” into things like this.

It is this kind of careless usage that has diluted the word to its present state, when you almost assume that it means “figuratively” when you hear it in casual conversation. “Oh,” you say, “you’re literally going to tear my head off? Yeah, watch where you point that metaphor, good sir!” This leads to awkward beheadings and tearful apologies (“I thought she understood my meaning…. This is literally what it says in the dictionary.” “Please, don’t start down that road again.”)

I am in no way exaggerating when I say that I’m a fan of hyperbole. (Perhaps that sentence is not the best illustration.) But this is why it’s so imperative we stop inflating poor “literally.” In this case, I think she actually means literally, but first I spent several minutes puzzling why a health-care program would figuratively kill anyone, unless the health-care program were telling really excellent jokes somewhere.

At the rate we’re going, littorally, the word that means “in a way resembling that zone between high and low tides” will get dragged into this mess. “Obamacare is going to drag Grandma out to the beach at low tide and littorally kill people,” Bachmann will say. “Not literally?” “No, not literally.”

Of course not literally. This is hyperbole.

If Obamacare actually included killing in its repertoire, it might have more support — at least from that debate audience full of people literally shouting, “YES, ABANDON THE INDIGENT AND ILL TO DIE ON THE STEPS OF HOSPITALS! EXPOSE THEM ON MOUNTAINTOPS FOR THE WILD BEASTS! RON PAUL GETS IT!” or whatever it was. I suspect it was not that. I am using “literally” there in the Bachmannesque sense of “not quite, actually, at all.” The ruthless slaying of women, children and the elderly would add a certain Hunger Games-esque patina to the whole proceedings — and given the increased popularity of the Hunger Games among tea party circles as a metaphor, this could only enhance its popularity.

I blame the death panels. The phrase was so vivid it seemed to be literally, rather than metaphorically, real. You could just see those bureaucrats sneering at Gramps. And from there it was a slippery slope — like the one a cruel bureaucrat is pushing Grandma down right now. Literally. I think. The word is starting to lose all meaning.

“Literally” describes, or used to describe, something that is actually in fact happening in real life in the world — like mothers decreasing the rate at which they opt to get Gardasil vaccines, proven lifesavers, for their daughters, pointing to trumped-up health concerns such as those raised by Bachmann during the Republican debates. To pick a random example.

Literally is the adverb that cried wolf. Literally has awakened us at 3 a.m. too many times shouting that the British are literally coming. “Literally?” we ask, shuffling to the door with our muskets. “No, figuratively,” they say. “Well, why didn’t you say that?” we grumble. “We needed it to sound urgent! No one gets out of bed to deal with a metaphor, except possibly that Kafka cockroach guy.” It is the combination of the tendency of people to use it indiscriminately as an intensifier, tossing it all over their remarks like salt without even tasting them first, and people who are just wrong who use it as a modifier that has done this. Now we don’t know what to think. “The house is literally on fire?” we say, rolling over and ignoring the faint whiff of smoke. “Wake me when it’s actually on fire. No, actually’s weak too. Wake me when it’s INCONTROVERTIBLY on fire.” In the meantime, this sort of remark does not help.

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