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For a buck, you can literally have my ear

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 10:08 p.m. MDT

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That does it. I literally can’t take it anymore. And if you think there is something wrong with the previous sentence, literally paste a star on your forehead. The rest of you don’t get it.

I literally mean that.

I’m not sure when “literally” became the third biggest crutch in the English language, after “like” and “you know.” Like, the word is used, you know, as a point of emphasis, in place of “actually” or “really” or “virtually” or “without exaggeration.” It is literally the most misused, abused expression in, like, the world, worse than “irregardless” and “I could care less.” The word is worn out and beat up. It should be on life support. If “literally” were a person, he would be literally in intensive care.

I once heard a sportscaster describe a tackle for a national TV audience by saying, “He literally took his head off.”

And they kept playing the game. They staked yellow police tape at the scene of the decapitation and played around it.

I literally laughed my head off, and it’s rolling around the floor where people can literally trip over it (some people say they literally laughed off another part of their anatomy, but not me).

Everybody misuses “literally.” Yahoo News reported that President Barack Obama's re-election campaign sent supporters an email promising, for a $3 donation, “you could literally have (the president’s) ear at an upcoming dinner with you and a few other guests."

I guess they think he’ll never miss an ear or two since he doesn’t listen to voters anyway. For $5 they’d promise you an arm and a leg (bada boom).

Vice President Joe Biden has become famous for literally putting his foot in his mouth in public and for misusing “literally.” He would literally be rendered speechless if he couldn’t use “literally.” In a single campaign speech, he used the word 10 times, but he only got it wrong 10 times.

To wit: “The American people literally stood on the brink of a new depression.” “(Our special forces are) literally the finest warriors in the history of the world!” “In the first days, literally the first days that we took office, General Motors and Chrysler were literally on the verge of liquidation.” “It literally amazes me they don’t understand that.” “He knew that families all over America sitting at their kitchen tables were literally making decisions for their family that were equally as consequential.” “When things hung in the balance — when things hung in the balance — I mean, literally hung in the balance …” “It was about — literally, it was about — it was about healing an unbearable wound, a nearly unbearable wound.”

Entire websites are dedicated to the abuse of “literally.” There are signs and T-shirts emblazoned with “Misuse of the word ‘literally’ makes me figuratively insane.” And “You mean figuratively, not literally.”

I called Jon Ostenson, who teaches in the BYU English Department. “Yes, I have noticed the way people use ‘literally,’” he says. “You need to watch the Rob Lowe character in ‘Parks and Recreation.’”

That would be the TV show in which Lowe plays the role of Chris, the city manager who has become as famous as Biden for abusing “literally.” It was never planned; it just happened — “I think I just leaned into that word really hard a couple of times … and the next thing you know it just became one of Chris’ things,” he told Vulture.com.

Which reminds me: To really own the word, you must pronounce it correctly to make it extra obnoxious. That means turning the word into three syllables instead of four, with a hard emphasis on the first syllable – LIT-ra-lee. Lowe has made it an art form.

Lowe’s character says things like, “That is LIT-ra-lee the best news I’ve heard all day.” “This is LIT-ra-lee the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” “Every time I cleanse I can LIT-ra-lee feel the toxins leaving my body.” “There’s LIT-ra-lee nothing in this world you cannot do.” “It is LIT-ra-lee the comfiest couch you’ve ever been on.” “You are LIT-ra-lee the meanest person I’ve ever met.” “That idea is LIT-ra-lee the greatest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Lowe told Vulture he is loath to use the word when he’s not playing the TV role — “I find myself going, ‘I’m telling you, that guy is li— … absolutely the worst person I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve tried to banish it from my personal vocabulary for a while,” he says.

It’s not always easy. When Vulture asked him about a character he is playing in a movie, Lowe said, “It’s not what you expect. It is lit— … did you see what I did there? Did you? I’ve developed a midlife stutter!”

Well, as usual, the pop culture wins. “Literally” is misused so frequently that Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries have added the erroneous second usage for the word and earlier this year Google search added it, as well. English teachers literally just threw up.

“I tend to be pretty liberal,” says Ostenson. “I’ve become tolerant of the bizarreness of grammar. Life is short. It takes too much time and energy to get bothered by these things.”

Oh, um, so forget the whole thing. Literally.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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