There’s something I have to metaphorically get off my chest. You literally don’t have a clue what “literally” actually means.
Literal is defined as: actual; absolute. Literally is defined as: in the explicit meaning of the word; without embellishment or exaggeration; not as an idiom or metaphor.
I’m not the first person to plead this case, and I doubt I’ll be the last. Complaints of the misuse of the word are rampant. But despite the growing reeducation and the obvious satire, the abuse seems to be spreading more aggressively than ever.
And I think I’ve figured out why.
We are in an era of virtualization — our work, our leisure, our relationships and education all being served and maintained via intangible technologies — and at this stage in our transformation, people have started to crave the physical.
When our lives are largely lived out in the ether, we struggle to give emphasis to our intentions, our desires, and our goals. We struggle to give emphasis to just about anything, due entirely to the constraints of our communication vehicles: email, text message, IM, Twitter, phone, Skype. Their affordances for emphasis are severely limited. WE WANT YOU TO KNOW HOW WE REALLY FEEL. Did that do the job?
I’m in pain. I’m happy. I’m scared. I’m excited. I’m in trouble. I’m in love. And I’m much, much more than pixels on a screen.
To say you’re “literally dying” about the news you just heard, or are “literally falling off my chair” from the video you just watched, or are “literally over the moon” in love with the man you just met is just your way of expressing that you really, really mean it. But you aren’t actually dying, or falling, or flying in outer space. You just feel like you are. And you’re desperate for everyone else to understand.
We are more disconnected than ever before. The more we learn about each other second-hand (in status messages and blog posts and tagged photos), the less we feel the need to ask and the harder it is to tell. The less we literally connect eyes and hands, the less we figuratively connect our minds.
I try not to be a language Nazi (see what I did there?), but this is one case in which I think it’s crucial that we start paying attention. When we fall back on the incorrect usage of a word, we’re implying that we haven’t found a better way to express ourselves.
I don’t think it’s poor word choice. I think our virtualization is eroding our ability to intonate. Perhaps our ever-growing modes of communication are so devoid of pitch and tonality that we’re losing our grasp of them in meatspace.
What can I, as a user experience designer, do to reverse this trend? What can we all, as contributors to and creators of technology, do to imbue our input devices with the subtleties of tone and allow for the necessary expression of emphasis? Or is the pollution of language an omnipresent and unavoidable reality of evolution?
I can’t wait to hear your thoughts, so please share in the comments. I’m literally on the edge of my seat.
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