The Best Wrong Way To Use “Literally”

by Zoe Pollock

Spencer Woodman appreciates how the word “can introduce gratifying little flashes of surrealism into everyday conversation.” Exhibit A:

[I]n The Metamorphosis—in which Gregor Samsa, who carries out the vermin-like existence of a traveling salesman serving the debts of his parents, turns into an cockroach—Kafka purposely misuses the word. After Gregor’s well-meaning sister removes the furniture from along the walls of his bedroom to allow Gregor to more freely crawl along the walls and ceiling; “the sight of the bare walls literally made her heart bleed,” Kafka writes. (In lieu of any knowledge of German, I’m taking Joachim Neugroschel’s translation of the story at face value.) The sort of literalized metaphor that dictates the impossible story is shrunk down to a simple turn of phrase. …

Even for those not attempting a great modernist novel, the effect is possible in everyday conversation. “She literally exploded with anger” is a commonly mocked example of the word’s misuse. Although it’s admittedly cliché, it still generates a gratifying cartoonish flash for me: the person in question actually blows to pieces, which is funny and also descriptive.

His advice:

The rule of thumb could be simple: that if the word’s misuse doesn’t create an interesting picture, it’s probably best to use another adverb or adjective.

Previous Dish on the subject here and here.