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Month: November 2016

I Literally Dislike this Word

Literally, adverb. The primary or intended meaning of a verb.

This word plagues common speech. In part it helps us solve the dilemma of how to describe uncommon events in a public speech overwrought with the embossing and adornment of hyperbole, however it is fraught with risk.

Let us consider the case for usage.

An Uncommon Case for Usage

To use ‘literally’ is to signify an uncommon occurrence. Moreover it is used to imply the honest retelling of events.

So ‘literally’ maybe used to call attention to the verb it adjoins and signal it’s actual meaning, the seriousness in which the author ascribes that meaning, and the lack of exaggeration in the now expected extraordinary claim to follow.

  1. Superman literally lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I literally wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She literally sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

We can see that in no way does using ‘literally’ increase the veracity of a claim. The reader is left no better off than had the word not been used at all.

Consider instead:

  1. Superman lifts a car on the cover of the first Superman comic.
  2. I wrote out The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and now I can quote it at will.
  3. She sculled two litres of milk, and then, just as swift, threw them back up again in a torrent of white.

Veracity or otherwise is established in context.

Using ‘literally’ makes the reader ask, why now? Why is it so important that I believe you now? And, in turn, has the unintended consequence of making it more likely that you’re claim will be doubted.

Not recommended for use.

The Non-Existent Case for Emphasis

There is no case for emphasis, however, its usage is on the rise.

In each case below we see an unintended comic effect as ‘literally’ creates a visual image at odds with meaning of the sentence.

  1. I literally caught her eye, and now we’re going out this Friday.
  2. She literally had an alien child that wont do what it’s told.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister on my sweet new handy-cam.

In all these examples we note the comic effect sits in contrast to the intended seriousness.

Not recommended for use.

A Comedic Case (with a hidden compartment)

All of the above turns on its head when the intended aim is comedy.

  1. I literally caught her eye, so I gave it back to her.
  2. She literally gave birth to an alien, kill it, no trap it.
  3. I literally shot the Prime Minister, it is a magic trick we’ve been working on.

None of this of course is actually that funny, and so the case literally falls apart – no matter how many times we put it back together again.

Not recommended for use.

An Unreliable Joy

In fiction we might attempt to use ‘literally’ to create a serious/comic incongruity, a metaphorical oxymoron. Such a well constructed sentence, within context, can surprise us, drawing us into the whimsy.

Such writing is joyfully unclear:

  1. And with a simple miss-step Jonathan Safran Foer literally fell from off the Ends of the World, and there he remains – plummeting through space – waiting for us to find him.
  2. Henry did not gather the strings of his mind to a single purpose, he literally laid them bare on the tabletop and counted them up so the sum was no greater than its parts.

Not recommended for the every day user or philologist alike.

Correct Usage

This one is to satisfy the philogists only.

When asking the actual meaning of a word. When asking someone to use the actual meaning of a word

  1. What does abdicate mean literally? Use instead, what is the literal meaning of abdicate? or simply, what does abdicate mean?
  2. Can you translate this literally? Use in this case if you mean a precise word for word translation.

What it tells us

In life it is better to strive for appropriateness, originality and precision least you run the risk of being thought an unreliable narrator to your own existence, which is to say, a fraud or a fool.

Use verbs appropriately because you owe it to yourself and those who are reading: Did you catch the bus or did you ride it? Did you die a little or did you suffer? Did you loose your mind or were you merely furious.

  1. Be original in your use of hyperbole and metaphor so your speech sparkles and the listener is rewarded for their time: I slept as a giant pink marshmallow in a bed of clouds; We went to work as a robot army ready to please our masters.
  2. Be precise with quantities so trust is earned and people listen: There are one thousand million stars in the galaxy and each one will eventually die.
  3. Over and under exaggerate for comic effect to bring joy to a dull moment: I ate an elephant before I got here so I might need a little sit down.

Establishing credibility takes times. It is an investment in accurately describing the world, in appropriate exaggeration, in the aptness of metaphor.

This way when describing uncommon events in a serious way there is no need to literally call attention to the fact. Your credibility is already assured.


Merriam-Webster. (2016). literally - definition from Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from
Oxford Dictionary. (2016). literally - definition of literally in English | Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved from

Trump and the American Dream

Today feels like one of those days. Mr Trump has been elected President of the US. It matters because of the kind of campaign he has run. There were two key characteristics: a complete lack of shame and a willingness to pander to whomever to get into power.

This resulted in a misogynistic caricature of a man who promised a return to the glory days of US hegemonic power, and implicitly aligned that with the patriarchy of which he was self anointed head. It was a campaign in which he was willing to attack and blame everyone except his own kind. A campaign which was the culmination of a relentlessly forged narrative of success, of the self-made man, of the personification of the American Dream.

Unlike the current President who would have us give him the opportunity to lead, I say he has already been given that opportunity and failed.

His election legitimises the means of his campaign, his misogyny, his bigotry, his attacks on the very architecture of public discourse, and of course his brutish swagger and fear-mongering.

All this is validated and we are lessor for it.

So what’s ahead?

The reality is Trump probably only wants power to line his pockets and to mythologise his brand by creating a legacy of Trump the King.

The dangers are two-fold: first, the eroding of the commonly educated populace of which all democracies are fundamentally premised; and, second, the precedent he sets. The first is bad enough though fixable. In the early nineties, after some twenty-odd years of struggle the denizens of Queensland were able to throw out a similarly corrupt and patriarchal demagogue and put systems in place to prevent it happening again.

The second, the precedent he sets, the legitimising of his style of campaigning is far more dangerous, as it has opened the door for a candidate equal with Trump’s lack of shame and self idolatry, yet with a saviour complex and a religious fervour that would see the end of the life on earth as just a stepping stone to paradise. Trump’s victory will make such a candidate more likely across the globe anywhere there is a disenfranchised middle class, anywhere where multiculturalism and fear-mongering allow easy scapegoating of minorities, anywhere people are overworked, under resourced, and scared for tomorrow.

Where we went wrong?

The truth is it is the Political Left that has failed the under-educated, the traumatised, the desperate and the destitute. We have been too quick to dismiss the role of luck, unable to recognise the importance of help, unwilling to accept that everyone has a bad day, can get sick, or can fall foul to circumstance.

Such realities don’t fit well with The Dream in which we want to believe. The Dream that reassures us we deserve everything we have, that we are solely responsible for our own fortune, that with a bit of hard work and innovation we can make it, that success is earned only. Trump leveraged our desperation to still believe.His success shows us the myth is alive and well, but it is only a myth. There is no panacea of the patriarchy. Whatever Trump’s polices turn out to be they will at some deep level be contingent upon this myth, and so will almost certainly fail to address the real concerns of the economically disenfranchised.

Where to From Here?

We must begin to realise that in our increasingly globalised and oligarchised world that wealth and success are not synonymous. We must acknowledge that luck, help, privilege, family, teachers, social infrastructure, and even government plays a greater role in the outcomes of people’s lives then hard work and determination.

We must look past this Dream and recognise its sinister opposite: that if you’re poor it’s your own fault. The Dream for many is a nightmare of self blame and torment.

If egalitarianism is the goal of a free and open democracy we must recognise that it is contingent upon economic freedom. The fight for social justice is impossible without the fight for economic justice and in the fight for economic justice we must acknowledge that The Dream of the self-made man is dead.

We must recognise a person’s worth is far greater than their bank balance, portfolio or headshot. We need social systems that give care and help to those in need, to the marginalised and unfortunates among us, for its own betterment society must accept the price of social infrastructure that gives people the chance to turn their lives around. We need life-long education grounded in truthful descriptions of the world we live, and public discourse built on the common trust that lies and fraud only hurt us all.

Let us recognise this as we look forward, as we find our new leaders who exemplify our ideals of equality, harmony, and hope. Let not our discourse denigrate into self-denial or blame, let us show there is still civility in this world.

More Reading

Williams, R. (2016, May 15). How “The Self-Made Man” Myth Feeds the American Dream. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from
McElwee, S. (2016, January 25). America’s dangerous “self-made” mythology: Why our ideas about upward mobility are seriously misinformed. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from
Miller, B., & Lapham, M. (2012). The Self-made Myth: And the Truth about how Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
vanden Heuvel, K. (2012, March 2). Challenging the Self-Made Myth. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from