"I Literally Inhaled That Sandwich": Figurative Intensifiers, Syllable Flips, And The Hidden Prejudices Of Criticizing Language
“My homework is literally a mountain right now.” “Like, I was a literal shining goddess with that highlighter.” “Oh my god, I literally inhaled that sandwich.”
Is it bothering you yet?
Criticizing language is something that I regrettably used to do a lot. In my primary education I very quickly picked up the rules of Standard American English syntax and grammar, and it was something at which I excelled.
Like most little shits, I took that skill and knowledge and shoved it down the throats of everyone I knew. In most situations this can be harmless. If a kid is really excited about basic information about planets, it's generally fine for that kid to run around screaming, "I bet you didn't know that Jupiter is 483.8 million miles from the Sun!"
But when what you're excited about is language, and your basic understanding is "Standard American English is the correct English and everything that varies from it may be mocked," things can get really sticky really quickly.
Especially when you develop a superiority complex in your first few semesters of college as an English Major.
So, I'm writing this essay for two reasons. 1. as an apology for everyone I was a little shit to, and 2. because I was witness to a conversation where someone was being mocked for using the word 'literally' in the above sandwich quote. Here we go.
Contemporary use of the word “literally” in situations like that above strikes a considerable amount of anger in many English speakers, and the reason why is probably one of the most basic entry-level examples of socio-linguistics that I can think of.
Frankly, this specific example has been proofed again and again, so this is in no way original thought.
Now whenever I call someone out on doing this, one of the first defenses I hear is:
Or, if the're being a little more blunt, they might also say:
So let’s go into those two, which I will loosely label as fashion and function.
Today, my personal rule for when I should open my fat mouth about the way someone writes or speaks is when I legitimately do not understand someone.
If there comes a point where the language someone is using, for whatever reason, doesn’t properly deliver a message, then I believe it’s open to discussion
Hostile discussion? No. Well, depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re just tryna attack someone, go ahead and be that way.
If someone is speaking in a vernacular I’m not native in, if someone is speaking too quickly, or if someone’s throwing out figurative speech from the 1930s, I think it’s completely reasonable to drop a “could you rephrase that?”, “I don’t understand, could you explain?”, or even a good ol’ “come again?”
And misunderstanding doesn’t even have to come from a perceived ‘low speech’, the complete opposite can happen too! If I’m talking with someone who is, say, pursuing a PhD in Biomechanical Engineering and they start to use words, terms, or any kind of language that I don’t understand, I’m going to say something. (Frankly I’ve had tough conversations with people who just got out of Freshman level Nursing courses in undergrad).
There’s even an established logical fallacy here, it’s called “Argument Ad Gibberish.” If both parties don’t share the language or share the understanding, there’s flawed or no communication, and that’s a problem.
So with that said, if you hear someone say, “oh my god, I literally inhaled that sandwich,” I have sincere doubts that you were actually concerned that the speaker inhaled a sandwich.
If you really truly are worried and think you might need to perform the Heimlich, I guess you could inquire, but I don’t think anyone is actually confused about that use of language.
And for those of you who are actually concerned about the grammatical function of the word let's take a mini dive.
If you take out the word literally from the sentence, you're left with a very basic metaphor.
"I inhaled that sandwich"
The meaning here is likely "I ate that sandwich quickly." The word "inhaled" is being used figuratively. The speaker did not actually inhale a sandwich.
Now if we add back in the word literally
"I literally inhaled that sandwich"
From context - and as critically thinking individuals - we can see that the word "literally" is not being used as an adverb to indicate the actual inhalation of a sandwich. Instead it's an adverb to intensify a verb that's already functioning in the figurative.
And if you're still stuck on "literally" operating with opposite meaning, I'll let you know there's a slough of words you use every day that operate with opposite meaning.
But that's another blog post.
So if you take away the functionality, the trigger here is this less concrete idea that it just sounds "stupid."
Fashion is subjective. I'd accept a well thought out argument that part of fashion is innate, but a large part of fashion is constructed by people.
What's fashionable is what Beyoncé is wearing. What's fashionable is what Chris Evans just promoted. What's fashionable is what Tom Ford or Vera Wang just put out.
Excepting counter-culture waves, fashion is dictated by the famous, the celebrated, or more generally, those in power.
And language works the same way. What is fashionable in language in a region is dictated by those who have power in that language.
I've put off saying it directly, and I'm sure you've figured it out by now, but the people deciding what's linguistically fashionable in the US are the people in power: white guys. Straight white guys. Cis straight white guys. Cis masc straight white guys. Cis masc straight white guys without disabilities. I could go on.
No, I'm saying that the way Standard American English is constructed is all of those things. Standardizing language means throwing aside an entire country full of language diversity.
A Tangent About AAVE
People seem generally accepting of the fact that there are differences between British English, Australian English, and American English, so it's odd that socially and academically, vernaculars like African American Vernacular English, are considered "uneducated" or "low speak."
Franchesca Ramsey with MTVs Decoded has a great piece on Black Vernacular use of the pronunciation "ax" over "ask." It's worth a watch.
I personally gravitate towards the theory of "ax" as a syllable flip (flipping a syllable when pronouncing a word, like how most people say "com-FTER-ble" instead of "com-FORT-able." fort v fter. It's flipped), but Ramsey focuses more on the fact that there's a long history of the word "ax," even in the oldest of works in the English cannon.
So, reaching back to "literally" guess, what, it's been used to mean "figuratively" in many works of the English cannon.
"And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell." -Vladimir Nabokov, Russian American Author of Invitation to a Beheading, published 1935.
There are tons more, and if you've gotten this far I'd assume you trust me enough or are apt enough to do the Googling yourself.
So if the word "literally" has been used by literary artists for such a long time, why has it gone out of fashion?
Because it's become part of femme-speak.
(I say femme-speak rather than woman-speak because, in my experiences, masculine woman don't use the word in that manner, and I know many femme men who do.)
Shaming the use of "literally" may not be a consciously sexist, gender-policing act, but - to use Ramsey's language - you are participating in a sexism in language.
For me to say "stop thinking that using a flip meaning of 'literally' is weird" is probably as absurd as saying "stop recognizing the sweetheart neckline as legitimate." It's something that's ingrained in our language and culture.
I usually try to keep my essays neutral with a message of "this is a thing" rather than some call to action, so I'm very tempted to keep it at that, to posit "this feature of social American English language is sexist," but I don't think that's far enough.
I won't ask anything active of my readers, but I will ask this as my call to action;
Don't Be An Asshole Like I Used To Be
And I think that's fair.
I'm not going to stop you from having initial reactions, and frankly I don't think that's possible. But I do think it's important to police your own actions, especially if it's something this passive.
If someone speaks a different way than you, recognize that it's not wrong it's just different.
When someone uses language differently than you do, consider being excited! Take it as a learning opportunity! The world is full of fascinating things, and language is one of them.
Just whatever you do, please do not have a 'holier than thou' attitude and 'correct' people on their English.
Language is complicated. Language is diverse, and unless somebody is coming up to you and personally asking you to teach the or help them with their language skills, it is not your or anyone's place to try to change that.
(This blog post is dedicated to Zoë Buscho)