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Joe_Freeman's avatar

What do you think when someone says "literally" when they mean "figuratively," or if they use "exponential" for "very"?

Asked by Joe_Freeman (504points) June 14th, 2009

I’m thinking of idiotic statements like “Man, I am literally burning up waiting here for the bus!” They say literally but mean exactly the opposite. Even more moronic, statements like “They renovated the Macy’s near my house and it’s exponentially better than it was before!” Do these people know that “exponentially” has a real mathematical meaning? Have we so relaxed our standards of English that it is considered acceptable to use “exponentially” as a synonym for “a whole hell of a lot”? And one more: Although “unique” means “one of a kind,” people will often use an adjective to modify the word with phrases like “very unique” and “so unique.” “That dress is lovely! It’s so unique!” Has “unique” become just a cuter replacement for “good”?

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17 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

I have never heard anyone do it, so it has not been something that I have needed to think about. I am pedantic about language, so I would notice such a thing.

I have heard a part of the addenda to your question, the misuse of unique has become ubiquitous. People use it to mean special or different.

There are many common abuses of language and reason, some more irritating that others. One of my most disliked is the addition of a superfluous “personally” as in in “Personally I think…”

Joinni's avatar

It has started to change meaning to emphasize something.

“Have we so relaxed our standards of English that it is considered acceptable to use “exponentially” as a synonym for “a whole hell of a lot”?”
Yes, and it has always been like that.

richardhenry's avatar

While I agree with your opinion on the abuse of the word “exponentially”, I think you’re missing the point with the uses of “literally” and “unique”.

The idea that you’re literally burning up is far more humorous than to state the obvious by using a word like figuratively. It’s very clear that you’re not actually on fire and you don’t need to state that.

With the word “unique” in your particular example, I’m pretty sure the girl is using it to describe the dress as an item of seeming rarity, and not simply as “good”. You have to remember that one of the definitions of unique is something that is not typical or unusual, and this fits the scenario you describe perfectly.

Or perhaps she’s an airhead that is unaware of the meaning of “unique” and simply thinks it sounds impressive? That’s also possible; but we’ve always had stupid people.

cookieman's avatar

I discuss this often with my friend Bret. He’s an English professor.

The answer to all your secondary questions is, “yes”. The majority of English speakers simply don’t care (assuming they even understand the words in the first place). And since they are the majority…

The language has always been liquid in nature. As such it will respond to and evolve based on the needs of the many – no matter how uneducated they may seem to the few.

Joe_Freeman's avatar

I think perhaps there’d be less abuse of “unique” if people were told that it literally means “one of a kind.” Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone say “That dress is lovely! It’s so one-of-a-kind!” No doubt I am fighting a losing battle.

richardhenry's avatar

@Joe_Freeman I’m confused. One of the established meanings of unique is: “not typical; unusual”. use the example “she has a very unique smile”. Source

This would suggest that provided the speaker actually understood the meaning, the example you gave is correct. In the usage notes, you’ll notice:

By the mid-19th century unique had developed a wider meaning, “not typical, unusual,”

cookieman's avatar

Exactly. Language, like all diciplines, evolves.

I think it is more important to consider the needs of the majority of the end-users.

When I first started teaching graphic design, I was adament that it should be taught the way I learned it (pre-computers). But in speaking with potential employers of my students, it quickly became clear those skills were no longer needed (as I learned them).

So while I mourned the loss of the three-hour sculpture class, no one but me seemed to care.

DarkScribe's avatar

Another very poorly understood but commonly used word is “pristine”.

DarkScribe's avatar

@richardhenry In what way?

It is used to describe things that are supposedly pure, clean or natural, but it means untouched, unchanged in any way. In many cases it makes the meaning comical if it is applied in its literal sense.

phoenyx's avatar

Literally, A Web Log

One of my favorites was from a television ad I saw for a diet pill: “the weight literally falls right off!”


DarkScribe's avatar

@phoenyx One of my favorites was from a television ad I saw for a diet pill: “the weight literally falls right off!”

You would have to careful about where you stepped if you wished to avoid tripping over.

LexWordsmith's avatar

“literally” for “figuratively” is lazy;
“exponential” for “very” is wicked crazy.

Joe_Freeman's avatar


Do I detect New England dialect here? :-)

Well, all I can say is, I agree!
If we use literally when we mean figuratively, then how do we convey the literal meaning of literally when we need it? Do we really want to grind down all the distinctions in our precious language for the sake of being modern, politically correct, accepting, all-embracing, non-judgmental, all that crap? This is rhetorical, of course.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Joe_Freeman Do we really want to grind down all the distinctions in our precious language…

It would save paper. Dictionaries would become pamphlets.

morphail's avatar

My dictionary tells me that one of the meanings of “unique” is “unusual, rare”. “Unique” has been modified (very unique, uniquest, most unique) by Carroll and Brontë among others.

“Literally” has been used as a figurative intensifier for about 200 years, by Dickens, Fitzgerald and Nabokov. Why is “literally” the only word in English we’re not supposed to use figuratively?

LexWordsmith's avatar

@morphail: Down with anti-prescriptivism!<grin>

@JF: Lived in Providence the first half of my life, but mostly i thought that that was a very apposite time to toss in a piece of chowderheadism.

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