A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was telling me about a horror movie he’d just seen, and he ended his narrative by saying, “I was literally scared to death!” My first thought was, not unless I’m getting this information in your Memoir from Beyond the Grave. The word literally means actually or really, as in There are literally thousands of people following her on Twitter. That’s a completely believable and verifiable fact. However, if someone says he literally exploded with anger, well, probably not. What’s happened here is that so many people have misused the word literally for so long, it’s become acceptable to use it incorrectly. This has happened with other words, too, the best example possibly being the word bye as it’s both used and misused in professional football. The NFL gives the two teams with the best regular-season records in each conference a bye in the first round of the playoffs, meaning they’ve earned the right to skip that first week. That’s a correct usage of the word bye. However, during the regular season, every team in the league gets one week off, and that’s what it should be called, an off week. But somewhere along the way, someone began referring to that off week as the bye week, and thanks to the Internet, that term went viral and was repeated thousands and thousands of times, until it eventually became part of our national lexicon.
A final example of this linguistic phenomenon involves the word factoid. A little history lesson first. Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in 1973. Mailer stuck the suffix –oid (which means resembling or having the appearance of) on the word fact to create factoid, which he said referred to “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” Jump ahead several decades, have a few people, including some in major media outlets, start using the word factoid to mean an interesting bit of trivia about a person or event, throw in the Internet (of course) and voila! You have a new definition for factoid.
Okay, let’s take a step back here for a minute. Does all this stuff matter? I mean, what harm is being done by someone saying he was literally scared stiff while watching the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Or by hearing a local sports anchor talk about your favorite team’s bye week in the middle of the season. In the greater, or even lesser, scheme of things, this is all pretty irrelevant. I’m well aware that there are far greater issues to be discussed and debated, and I completely get it that our language is constantly evolving. That’s why, for instance, we ask a new acquaintance where he or she is from instead of saying Whence comest thou? It’s just that I like to see and hear words being used properly. So I hope you’ll forgive me if the next time I hear a reporter on a national newscast say And here’s an interesting factoid, this longtime lover of language smiles a bit as he slowly, quietly and, yes, literally gives his head a small shake.