In everyday conversation the word “literally” is now as overused as the word “like” or the pause “um”. But, it’s also thoroughly abused (figuratively) and misused (literally). Unfortunately for pedants and linguistic purists, the word has become an intensifier of sorts. So, while you’ll still have to resort to cringing and correcting — if you are that inclined — your conversational partners next time they exclaim “… he was literally dying from laughter”, you have help online. A new web browser extension scans the page you’re on and replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively”. Now that’s really mind-blowing,
If you’re a cool-headed, fair-minded, forward-thinking descriptivist like my colleague David Haglund, it doesn’t bother you one bit that people often use the word “literally” when describing things figuratively.
If, on the other hand, you’re a cranky language bully like me, it figuratively bugs the crap out of you every time.
We pedants are waging a losing battle, of course. Even major dictionaries now recognize the use of “literally” as an intensifier for statements that are not literally true.
Fortunately, Yahoo Tech‘s Alyssa Bereznak has run across a simple remedy for this galling inversion of the term’s original meaning. Built by a programmer named Mike Walker, it’s an extension for Google’s Chrome browser that replaces the word “literally” with “figuratively” on sites and articles across the Web, with deeply gratifying results.
It doesn’t work in every instance—tweets, for example, are immune to the extension’s magic, as are illustrations. But it works widely enough to put you in metaphorical stitches when you see some of the results. For instance, a quick Google News search for “literally” turns up the following headlines, modified by the browser extension to a state of unintentional accuracy:
- The 2014 MTV Movie Awards Were Figuratively on Fire
- 10 Things You Figuratively Do Not Have Time For
- Momentum Is Figuratively the Next Starting Pitcher for LSU
Be warned, though: Walker’s widget does not distinguish between the literal and figurative uses of “literally.” So if you install it, you’ll also start seeing the word “figuratively” to describe things that are literally true, as in, “White Sox Rookie Abreu Figuratively Destroys a Baseball.” (The baseball was in fact destroyed.)
But hey, that’s no worse than the current state of affairs. Come to think of it, by the anti-prescriptivists’ logic, there’s nothing wrong with using “figuratively” to mean “literally,” as long as enough people do it. Anything can mean anything, literally—I mean figuratively!
If you’re signed into the Chrome browser, you can install the extension here. For those who want a browser extension that zaps hyperbole more broadly, try Alison Dianotto’s Downworthy tool, which performs similar operations on phrases like “will blow your mind” and “you won’t believe.”
Read the entire article here.