It’s like literally so misoverused. But whereas Jamie Redknapp gets the word nonsensically wrong, writers such as James Joyce knew exactly what they were doing with it
Jamie Redknapp … ‘That cross to Rooney was literally on a plate.’ Photograph: Nick Harvey/WireImage
I was sitting in a cafe – one of those generic pain au raisin and latte joints, with an earnest singer-songwriter soundtrack to boot – when a kid to my left piped up: “My school gym is like literally 500 years old.” His friends nodded with conviction. They understood. They felt the appalling deprivation of it all. A 500-year-old cross-trainer just isn’t any good to anybody. But I wasn’t going to underestimate my table-neighbour just yet. I couldn’t give up on him like that. After all, I appreciated the subtle contradiction of that “like”, poised on the edge of potential simile, and that bold, indicative “literally”, ready-armoured for its grapple with hard fact. But then, a couple of sentences further into their criss-crossing conversation, he said: “I’m literally gutted that I failed my English mock.” Ah, well, yes, quite. The country is literally going to the dogs.
Actually, I rather enjoy it when people force a “literally” where the antithetical and more pretentious “figuratively” would do – would, in fact, be more literal. But I have my limits. If you literally spray me with your false statements, do I not drown? If you literally press it upon me that the impossible has indeed happened, do I not recoil? However, one needs to be careful in diagnosing such linguistic ills. Nobody likes the queasy pedant creeping up with cold fingers, ready to clip our wings. (He tends to sit on his own in the corner of generic pain au raisin, skinny latte joints where they play singer-songwriter tunes.) It is an unfashionable and unendearing role.
But as Anthony Burgess once said, the poet and the pedant are as one, and grammar is glamour. So let’s be poetical. Let’s indulge ourselves in some glamour. It is tiresome to merely point out the ridiculousness of a statement such as “that cross to Rooney was literally on a plate” (Jamie Redknapp) or “Barca literally passed Arsenal to death” (Jamie Redknapp) or “he had to cut back inside on to his left, because he literally hasn’t got a right foot” (Jamie Redknapp). It is even more boring to then counter this with a pained attempt at sarcasm such as “did he smash the china?”, “someone should call the police” or “wow, a uniped footballer” (Unglamorous Pedant). It is far more interesting and glamorous to question what we are doing when we say “he walks into the room and he’s literally like a hurricane” (Chantelle Houghton) or when, over a contemplative cuppa perhaps, we merely observe that “centre forwards have the ability to make time stand still. And when Chopra got the ball, it literally did just that” (Jamie Redknapp). What, for instance, might these phrases have to say about our relationship to reality?
I’m no socio-linguist or cognitive-scientist, but I do like to float some hypotheses: maybe we’re a generation that is scared of commitment, linguistically deferring reality with our false literallys and our compulsive “likes” and “sort ofs” and “kind of things” that make everything seem only tentative and approximate; maybe our literallys are geared for emphasis, betraying a touching desire to be taken seriously or a cry for attention; maybe our misuse reveals a deeper insecurity about what in fact is real; maybe it reflects a sheer disregard for proportion or accuracy; or maybe it arises from a subconscious need for universality in a confusing age of spiralling subjectivities and relativistic hopscotch, longing to pin down objective truths in even the most fantastical of scenarios …
Of course, we might just be lazy and imprecise users of language. But what happens when James Joyce uses “literally” incorrectly, as when he says that “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” or tells us that to Leopold Bloom’s mind the Gloria in Mozart’s Twelfth Mass is “the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat”. Is James’s “literally” any better than Jamie’s?
I would suggest that a writer must have good reason for misusing the word. After all, literally also means “to the letter” and “of literature” (deriving from the Latin for “letter”: littera), so we should expect a degree of exactitude and particularity from a man of letters such as Joyce. And he more than delivers, misusing his literallys to grant us a deeper insight into the workings of his characters’ minds. Just to take the second example from above, Joyce is not only able to tell us something about the dynamic interaction between Bloom’s thirst for “higher” knowledge and his bourgeois background, but, more intimately, he is able to embody Bloom’s capacity for empathy – Bloom can harmonise high and low, just as he can align the literal and the figurative.
Salman Rushdie is another serial “literaliser”. He never tires of taking phrases that sound like classic hyperbole (“I am literally disintegrating”, “he began, literally, to fade” in Midnight’s Children) and making them, well, literal. In doing so he creates fantastic otherwise worlds, where the angle of vision has been slightly adjusted so that we might see things anew.
The point is that these writers are actually being highly precise in their misuses. Here is a particular favourite of mine: “The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” This is the sublime Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift. The thoughts are partially ironised – they belong to the novel’s narrator, who is struggling to summarise a range of impenetrable philosophical works – but nevertheless contain immense truth and beauty. However, it is by working through and beyond that initial intervening “literally” that he gets to the pure metaphor of the last sentence. And it is in that last sentence that we hit the heights of genius.
Writers such as Bellow, Joyce and Rushdie remind us of the fundamentally comic nature of life. That’s not comic as in “ha ha” comedy (there’s little to laugh about in those Bellow lines), but something more essential – a mood perhaps, maybe even a quality of vision. It has to do with life’s potential for adjustability and transformation; with a reality of shifting proportions, surprising angles, creative awrynesses. The comic world is above all an inclusive world. It is also opposite to the tragic view of a harsh and prohibitive world, where the literal – the objective truth – is inflexible and unassailable.
Clive James once called a sense of humour “common sense dancing”. I think that this is profound. If it is so, then misuses of literally are common sense raving: we know that the fans behind the goalpost haven’t literally gone insane (Jamie Redknapp) and that Messi doesn’t literally send people out of the stadium (Jamie Redknapp). The writers, however, are the ones who recognise our powerful need for the literal and figurative. They convey our longing for some kind of sympathy between the figurative expressions of our imaginations (clumsy and beautiful as they are) and the empirical truth of the literal world that we seek to describe. The writers show us that if the world is a mirror of thoughts, no straightforwardly literal statement will ever be enough to help us see it more clearly.
• Noughties by Ben Masters is published by Hamish Hamilton on February 2 at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.39 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.