I was out at a bar with Dave Maynor, my business partner, and the conversation went something like this:
Dave: This is literally the best burger ever.
Me: Give me a dollar.
Me: You said “literally”, so give me a dollar.
Me: It’s a new rule I’ve just come up with. I’m charging you a dollar every time you say the word “literally”.
(fishes a dollar out of his wallet and hands it to me)
The word “literally” is very bad, and should rarely, if ever, be used in conversation. I don’t mean that people are using the word incorrectly (though they are). I don’t mean that it’s bad style (though it is). Instead, I mean that there is some problem with the word “literally” that is all its own.
That problem is “exaggeration inflation”. Humans are intellectually dishonest. We exaggerate and lie as a matter of course. In the above example, Dave couldn’t say that the burger was unusually “good”, he instead exaggerated and claimed the burger was the “best”.
The problem with exaggeration is that it we have pushed it to its limits. When “best” has become the norm, there is nothing left to express those things above the norm. That’s where the word “literally” comes in. It cranks the exaggeration dial to 11, so that now “literally the best” is a level above simply “the best”.
To see where this exaggeration inflation leads, read the speeches of Joe Biden, where he attempts to crank the dial to 12. Most Biden speeches are good examples of overuse of the L-word. In a speech last year, he used “literally” ten times, including twice in a single sentence:
in the first days, literally, the first days that we took office, General Motors and Chrysler were literally on the verge of liquidation
And since the word “literally” has become a synonym of “figuratively” instead of its opposite, Biden is now attacking that word as well:
My fellow Americans, we now -- we now find ourselves at the hinge of history. And the direction we turn is not figuratively, is literally, in your hands
We should step back from the dishonesty of exaggeration. This means not only removing the L-word word from our language, but also addressing all the little exaggerations we make. In other words, Dave’s burger is not only not “literally the best”, it is also not “the best”. Instead, it is merely “exceptionally good”.
So back to Dave’s case. I’m proud to report that he has been cured. In the beginning, I received a flood of $1 bills. Every meeting in person and every telephone call resulted in at least $1. But, over the course of a few months, he improved. It was interesting watching the progression. In the beginning, when I interrupted him saying “give me a dollar”, he’d ask “what did I say?”, and I’d have to repeat the entire sentence back to him. Then, he started recognizing what he said, interrupting himself with an “aargghh” before I had a chance. Then he progressed to exclaiming “aargghh” in place of the L-word -- before owing me the dollar.
Today, my aversion therapy has completely cured him. He no longer even wants to say the L-word. I haven’t gotten a $1 from him in months.
Better yet, Dave’s language has improved in other respects. He’s recognized many other stupidisms in his daily language. Instead of vomiting up a random collection of words, expecting the listener to decipher the meaning, Dave is now treating language as computer code, recognizing that there is a computer on the other end that will attempt to parse the meaning of the code.
Despite suffering for months, and handing over more than $100, Dave now agrees with me. This is literally the nicest thing I’ve ever done for him.