I’ve written literally a hundred B & T blog posts.Posted: May 16, 2014
The statement “I drank a hundred beers last night!” is hyperbole; a simple exaggeration. Hyperbole admits of degrees. “I drank fifteen beers,” or “I drank a hundred beers,” or “I drank a thousand beers,” can all mean the same thing: “I drank many beers.” The difference is simply the level of the hyperbole. It is clear that the more of an exaggeration there is, the stronger the impression the statement creates.
The level of exaggeration can be increased in other ways than simply increasing the number, however. One way to accomplish this is simply to assert that the number is not an exaggeration at all. What creates a stronger impression of drinking a lot of beers: asserting that I drank “a hundred beers”, or asserting that, “no, seriously, it was an entire hundred”? It is clear that an exaggeration that is presented as fact is a bigger exaggeration than one acknowledged to stretch the truth.
Although this is sure to ruffle the feathers of some uptight pedants, the natural conclusion of this analysis is that the use of the word “literally” within an exaggeration is not only perfectly acceptable, but actually creates a stronger impression. Compare:
“I drank a hundred beers last night!”
“I drank literally a hundred beers last night!”
The second of those two sentences presents a greater exaggeration because of the assertion that it is actually not an exaggeration at all; “I honestly did drink that many beers.”
Opponents to this use of “literally” complain that the word literally means “actually; in fact”. To use it hyperbolically doesn’t make sense because I did not actually drink a hundred beers. Well of course I didn’t actually drink a hundred beers. That is the very nature of an exaggeration. They might as well complain about the use of “a hundred”? Hundred has a fixed meaning of “100; one more than 99”. But there is no complaint that using “a hundred” to mean anything less than 99 doesn’t make sense; I did not drink a hundred beers. The people who object to using the word “literally” in hyperbole are either objecting to hyperbole on the whole or are being inconsistent. Either way, they are stifling creative expression.
Note: Some of the objection to using “literally” in this way is simply reactionary. Some people have taken to using that word as a filler. These people just throw the word into their speech in the way that others throw in “like” or “uh”, without adding any meaning to their sentences. This is clearly a waste of a good word and is worth opposing. But when the word “literally” is used with purpose to create a stronger impression, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Beer of the Week: Big Flats 1901 – As far as I can tell, Big Flats is the house brand for Walgreens pharmacy. The “Light” version is literally the cheapest beer in Chicago, at two and a half dollars per six-pack (before taxes.) At such a low price, there will always be a market for this stuff. In addition to being cheep, a large scale taste test determined that Big Flats tastes better than Budweiser. Faint praise, to be sure, but regular Bud drinkers might consider making the switch for the taste if not for the savings. The first glass I had shocked me because I’d never before had a beer that tasted so much of corn. It was like a tortilla in a glass. It lacked anything by way of a hops presence to balance the cheap grain flavor, so all that remained in the aftertaste was that somewhat insipid corn taste. The tortilla flavor inspired me to pour my second Big Flats 1901 the same way I would pour a cheap Mexican beer. With a pinch of salt and a lime wedge, this beer actually becomes a reasonable choice, especially on a warm day. The lime dominates the flavor and I’d be very surprised if most people could tell this beer apart from a Corona served the same way. It really isn’t bad with lime and salt, but limes are expensive; it’s probably smarter to just pay more for a better beer.
Reading of the Week: Proslogium by St. Anselm of Canterbury – If we accept Anselm’s definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” we are led to the conclusion that God must exist. A greatest conceivable being that is not real is not as great as a greatest conceivable being that is real. Therefore, the God that is not believed in is not actually a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, which goes against the postulated definition. This is very similar to my argument for the use of the word “literally” in exaggeration: an exaggeration that is asserted to be the truth is a greater exaggeration than one that is acknowledged to be a false statement of fact. (This also serves as a great illustration of the fact that in a debate, one ought never concede the other side’s first point.)
Question of the Week: I think that in terms of exaggerated quantities, I have shown that “literally” can reasonably be used as an intensifier. Does the argument extend to other forms of figurative speech? (Eg. “This is literally the biggest beer there has ever been,” or “I drank so much beer that I might literally explode.”) I suspect that the answer is yes.