Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Everyone wants to be heard, literally

Have you noticed how often people are injecting the word "literally" into their conversations?

It's happening all the time, or at least it seems to me.  Perhaps it's like the word "like," but for different reasons. 

Years ago, when teenagers dominated our home, we had a "like" tax at our house.  When one of the kids would tell their story (interjecting the simile-marker), I would hold up my hand, raising a finger with every "like" word (heh, heh, get it?).  Usually that provoked rolled eyes and exasperated gasps, but it worked.  My teenage children policed their diction and then would add, "This is just the way my friends talk.  I can't help it."  Of course, we adults would laugh with derision at the nonsensical word filler, knowing our conversation skills were far superior.

That was until the new "like" word began to pop up in adult conversation.  Listen carefully.  Adults love to throw in the word "literally" like a valley girl (did it again).  Indeed, "literally" seems like the anti-valley girl filler, literally (somebody stop me).  When teenagers in southern California had a hard time gathering their thoughts, they threw in a simile now and then, perhaps to avoid the dim-witted "uhhhhh" (I'm probably giving too much credit to valley girls to explain the phenomenon that lasted for decades).  Adults, on the other hand, with all of our mental faculties, have taken a different tact.  Rather than rely upon similes to fill in the gaps, we throw in a word to be heard.

In the space of a half hour, I heard it three times this morning.  Watching the news about the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma caused by a tornado, one of the reporters said, "The tornado literally mowed down everything in its path like a lawn-mower."  One of my family members used the word, literally.  Then, on my way to work, I no sooner turned on the radio when I heard a reporter on NPR say (referring to a new "quantum mechanics" computer), "It's literally a black box."

I think I'm literally getting tired of hearing the word.  So, why do we do it?

I have a hunch that it has something to do with the volume of words we try to take in everyday, the cacophony of voices that clamor for our attention.  Everybody has something to say.  Everyone has an opinion about everything, literally.  But, we all have a sneaky suspicion that no one's listening.  Think of how many words are spoken per day.  Thousands?  Millions?  Zillions?  Really, are there enough ears in the world to hear it all?  Besides, in a world where metaphors and similes dominate the landscape of everyday speech, throwing in another "like" won't help.  So, what do we do to be heard?  Shouting seems to be the recourse of political pundits and angry citizens.  Sound bytes are fading in their appeal (television is wearing them out).  Seems our latest strategy is to pique the interest of our listeners by appealing to what we say "literally."

So, here's an approach that I hope will become fashionable (I can dream, can't I?).  Perhaps we should use silence to get others to listen.  Rather than add to the madness, where everyone is talking at once, maybe the best approach to being heard is to say nothing.  Rather than assume that just because it passes through the gray matter between our ears people must hear it, maybe we should keep our mouths shut for a change. Then, when we speak, people might listen to what we have to say.

Wouldn't that be a welcome change, especially after the latest disaster that brings out every opinion--crazy or not--from every corner of the world, literally?

1 comment:

Bill said...

Thanks for this. The misuse of the word "literally" is one of my pet peeves. When folks use it they almost always mean the exact opposite of it ("figuratively", for example).

It's terribly misused in sports announcing too. ("He literally tore his head off" or "They literally annihilated the other team.")