Thursday, March 15, 2012

I'm literally not being funny but let me ask you a question

At the end of the day, we're all guilty of using annoying, clichéd and pointless words or sayings in our speech but some just take the biscuit. A few years ago Oxford University researchers compiled a top ten annoying phrases with, perhaps unsurprisingly, 'at the end of the day' at number one. The office place is the main environment where we hear these sorts of expressions literally every minute. I used to work with an extremely annoying woman who was full of annoying expressions. 'At the end of the day' was one of her favourites, along with 'I'm not being funny but…'.

The latter, 'I'm not being funny but…' is apparently English in origin but I tend to think of it as Australian, perhaps because said annoying woman was Australian and when I lived in Australia I heard it literally a thousand times a day. The phrase usually occurs as a prefix to something offensive (and not really funny at all), such as 'I'm not being funny but there's a really big spot on your face' (two more reasons I thought it was Australian).

Another annoying and pointless saying – which I've only ever heard uttered in countless American films and TV shows – is 'let me ask you a question' (which I'm not sure is a statement, question or rhetorical question but which the obvious reply is: 'you already have'). This waste of words also riled another blogger, writing for the Examiner, who mentions an American interviewer called Jenna Wolfe, whose job it is to ask questions, and whose interviewees probably guess that's she's going to ask them questions, but asks 'let me ask you a question' before she asks a question.

Recently, the overuse and misuse of the word literally has been highlighted in the media, including a Guardian article and on the BBC's Today programme. Currently finding myself working in an office, I now suddenly hear the word literally uttered literally every five seconds. The debate reached national proportions at the weekend, when UK Deputy PM Nick Clegg uttered the now classic line: '... and then you see people literally in a different galaxy who are paying extraordinarily low rates of tax.' (Prompting one witty Guardian reader to comment, 'When Nick Clegg promised to fight increases in tuition fees he didn't mean it literally'.)

Other notable misuses of the word include Ulrika Jonsson explaining the Swedish system of child custody after divorce: 'literally will split the child in half to live one week with the mother ...'

But before we all scream about the degradation of the English language, it should be noted that literally – and many other words – have been misused or changed their meaning over the years. And literally has literally been 'misused' by authors from Jane Austen and Louise Alcott to Charles Dickens and F Scott Fitzgerald (unless Gatsby did 'literally glow').

Literally doesn't literally just mean literally, it can mean figuratively. It's used to give emphasis to a statement, to draw attention to it. And, depending on context, it should be obvious whether it's used literally or figuratively.

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