The Superfluous Literally

How misuse of the word ‘literally’ signals an alarming trend in human communication.

One can hardly spend an hour on the internet these days without encountering the word ‘literally’ being used to emphasize some point. There are other words that are similarly misused, two of the other common ones being ‘actually’ and ‘objectively’. The common denominator between these words is that they are emphatic, and add a degree of authority and certainty to a statement, at least within the modern linguistic zeitgeist. I have come to call these words, and others used similarly, clout modifiers.

A clout modifier is any word that is added to a sentence in order to create an appearance of absolutism and authority, ie: clout. The second feature of a clout modifier is that it is completely unnecessary to convey any information except for the desire of the speaker to be viewed a certain way by their audience. It is, to use another colloquialism, a flex.

Here is an example:

1. They literally self-identify as Nazis.

Now lets remove the clout modifier…

2. They self-identify as Nazis.

Notice that both sentences say the exact same thing. There is no way to figuratively or metaphorically self-identify. One can describe their self through figurative, metaphorical language, but not identify, except perhaps in jest.

This is what the word ‘literally’ exists for, to signal that something potentially interpretable as figurative, is in fact not intended that way. This is almost never necessary. Usage of the word ‘literally’ is almost never required. In most cases we can determine if a statement is intended as literal or figurative through the context of the surrounding language. Now take a minute to think about that, can you imagine a statement which actually requires the use of the word ‘literally’ to clarify the intent of the speaker/writer? If you can, I would appreciate you posting it in the comments, because my own attempts have summoned nothing but hyperbole.

So is this a problem? Why?

From the perspective of the listener/reader, probably not. Misuse of the term is probably not going to confuse or distract an audience. However it is a problem for the speaker/writer, because when one continuously reaffirms their own certainty, authority and clout, they begin to compromise their own humility and critical thinking. It is a form of self-conditioning which shields one from the kind of self-doubt and curiosity needed to think and communicate honestly.

The use of clout modifiers seems to increase parallel to the intensity of clapback culture. As we become more engaged with tribal politics that are increasingly about identity and competition than clarity and honesty, our language thickens with the sort of hyperbole intended to add a superficial sense of righteous indignation and superiority.

This is signaling gone awry. Signaling is an evolutionary technique to communicate information that increases the adaptability of the individual and/or species, and in terms of human civilization that equates to an increase in cooperation and social cohesion. But when signaling is used as a means resulting in division and social strife, it becomes maladaptive. It becomes a process of devolution. Indeed the process of devolution is becoming increasingly apparent in our use of language, and I am not being figurative, metaphoric nor engaging hyperbole. Language is the primal technology of human beings, and we are literally deconstructing it through decreasing coherence.

The most common response to concerns about the misuse of language is that ‘language evolves’. While that is true, it also suggests that language can devolve. In my next article I will discuss how we can see the devolution of language occurring in some of the most pervasive narratives in the world today.

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