Literalization, Literally

Yesterday I talked about how I didn’t want one of my favorite words, ephemeral, to be literalized. Today I’m going to tell you what that means.

The first thing you should know is that when I say literalization, I’m actually making up a word. Literalization is not a word, and the few dictionaries that do have it define it as reducing things down to their actual meaning. But in this case, I’d like to define literalization as the act of doing what culture has done to the word literally.

Think about it like this. Who do doctors usually name the first known case of a disease after? The first person or most famous person to get it, right? Well, that’s why I’m calling this “literalization.” Because literally is the most famous word that encounters this problem.

Now most people who have a problem with literally focus on it being used in place of the word figuratively. This is such a problem that Google has gone and defined the word as “figuratively.” But I actually have two problems with the use of the word literally.

1. People use it in the wrong context. (I am literally dying of laughter.)
2. People use it correctly, but use it WAYYY too much. (I literally worked for ten hours yesterday. We literally at chicken salad for lunch.)

The second is a phenomenon I like to call superfluous literally syndrome. It’s the same as people who curse to much. You can curse, and if you do it well you can effectively emphasize points. But cursing all the time just makes you seem stupid. It’s the same for literally. If you use it sporadically, you can emphasize points very well. But the word quickly loses its power if used too much. In fact, in this society it’s probably best to avoid the word completely if you want to seem smart.

But my concern is that we’re going to see other words take this same path. People will identify a word that sounds nice and then say it to death until the word means the opposite of its definition. Remember the AWESOME craze we had a few years ago. Then everything was AMAZING. Now everything is EPIC! We even had this phase where literally every video game had epic in the title. Sarcasm intended. Something that is awesome is now something that is mundane.

I don’t want this to sound like a harsh criticism, but I feel it all comes down to the social implications of the conversation at hand. People just aren’t interested in venturing out of a set box of socially acceptable words when it comes to small conversations. Your trip to the beach was literally amazing, yes, but so help us all if it was resplendent, halcyon, or opulent. It is not okay to talk like that because it might actually require concentration, or worse, learning a new word. Social power runs deep, and society has a method of putting people in there place.

I just don’t want to see the process of literalization happen to some of my favorite words. I mean, will we start abusing the word “mellifluous” (sounding pleasant to the ear) any time soon? Probably not. But I will close with a few potential candidates for literalization.

Plethora – a large amount – we already kind of abuse this word because we’re tired of saying “a lot.”
Panacea – a cure for everything – Some people use this already, but the problem is few people know what it means. People say it like this, “the panacea, the cure” in order to sound smart.
Figuratively – literally – yeah, I actually see people fighting back with this word in a few years. It’s like a civil war!
Love – this word’s already the most literalized word in history.
Serenity – so far, this word has stayed in the shadows of yoga instructors and self-enlightenment people. Still, I see it coming into the light before long.

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Matthew Estes

Matthew Estes currently exists in the ether between graudate student and full-time worker. One day he hopes to be a full-time novelist and blogger, but until that day comes he spends his time playing video games, eating pizza, and being with his soon-to-be wife. However, he has yet to do all three at the same time. Bucket list stuff, you know.

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