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September 29, 2011

I’ve just been reading Will Tidey’s book Life with Sir Alex, all about being a Manchester United fan (insert sarcastic comment here). Commenting on the infamous dressing-room incident where Ferguson threw a football boot and it hit David Beckham in the face – who then apparently leapt up to attack his manager and had to be physically restrained by team-mates – Tidey opines that it was ‘literally a storm in a tea cup’. Really, Will? Literally? You mean what actually happened was that Fergie and Beckham were swimming around in a giant tea cup (or perhaps it was a normal-sized tea cup and they had been miniaturised) when a storm blew up and they were tossed about in the choppy waves of tea?

Two things strike me as strange about this misusage. One is that nobody at Bloomsbury, the publishers, saw fit to correct it. Don’t they have editors? Clearly they do, because Tidey says in an afterword that he owes thanks to two editors: Charlotte Atyeo, who taught him the difference between ‘bought’ and brought’ and ‘thrown’ and ‘throne’ (yes, really); and Julian Flanders, who put the finishing touches. Neither of these editors thought it worth pointing out that Tidey didn’t really mean ‘literally’, he meant – well, what? Presumably he meant ‘figuratively’ – ie the exact opposite of the word he chose. It is true that Ferguson was also known for throwing teacups around in the dressing-room, so Tidey probably had that in mind; but it still doesn’t justify ‘literally’. What he meant was that the usual figure of speech in this case has a peculiar aptness. Well, why not say that then?


The second thing that is odd about the misusage is that it has been widely mocked – Private Eye frequently hold perpetrators up to ridicule – but it still keeps cropping up. George Orwell wrote that it’s a misconception that cliches and misusages can’t be resisted; he cites the cliche ‘leave no stone unturned’ as having been killed off by the jeers of a few journalists. More recently, I remember ‘at this moment in time’ being mocked until people stopped using it; and I think politicians have now ceased to say ‘we’ve made this perfectly clear’ because so many people have pointed out that that is just what they have not done. Yet ‘literally’ in its non-literal sense soldiers on, oblivious to mockery. Can nothing stop it? Is ‘literally’ fated to lose its literal meaning?

PS If anyone wants to read my review of Tidey’s book it will be in the Independent on Sunday on 9 October.

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  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    We just haven’t mocked it hard enough; we need to literally leave no stone unturned until the misusage becomes literally extinct.
    To be fair (used correctly, ha), I suppose this is also a case of the Exaggeration Ratchet, isn’t it?
    By the way, your PS makes it seem that your review’s being in the Independent is dependent on people wanting to read it: is there a name for that sort of construction? They’re a particular pet peeve.

    • Right – let’s keep on mocking (in the free world).

      I know what you mean about the construction used in my PS. It is illogical. We should think of a name for it – let’s call it a false conditional. It could be remedied by substituting ‘In case’ for ‘If’, so that is how I shall phrase such thoughts in future.

      • C. Robshaw permalink

        Good thinking. I think that’s worth a post of its own – were you wondering what to blog about next?

  2. Looking forward to the review Mr. Robshaw, lesson well and truly learned Sir.

  3. Let me add it isn’t my understanding of the word “literally” that’s the issue in that mistake. It’s the fact I took it for granted everybody understood Ferguson’s penchant for throwing tea cups – and I took a twist on it, perhaps unwisely. Clearly he kicked a football boot this time, so it wasn’t a great choice of phrase.

  4. Flat Eric permalink

    OK, this use of ‘literally’ is pretty annoying, but there is a logic to it. They are adding emphasis, as if they were saying ‘very’.

    When a sportsman is doing well, we might say he is ‘on fire’ (to refer to one of your earlier posts). If you want to add emphasis to that, it’s OK – if a little weak – to say he is ‘really on fire’. We use really not to mean ‘in reality’ but to mean ‘very’. The logic is that he is doing so well that the metaphor ‘he is on fire’ is actually coming true. One might also say ‘You can almost see the flames coming out of his feet.’

    The logic of using literally is just the same, don’t you think? It adds emphasis, and it does so by saying: this effect that I am describing is so strong that the metaphor I was using to describe it is actually taking physical form, rather than ‘merely’ being a metaphor.

    I’m not defending it. I agree it makes people sound very stupid. But no one would ever say ‘he is figuratively on fire’ because ‘figuratively’ doesn’t serve the same purpose of adding emphasis.

    Maybe this is the exaggeration ratchet that you mentioned above…in which case you know all this already.

    • Hi – this is a very clear explanation of the logic underlying this use, and I think you are right. It is an example of the exaggeration ratchet. Thanks.


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