Politics, as George Orwell observed, does not bring out the best in us, and certainly not in our use of language.
I try not to go after low-hanging fruit as a general rule, but last week’s ruling on Obamacare seemed to have brought out the worst in everyone.
In this week’s headlines, Rush Limbaugh says he is “literally sick over this Obamacare travesty.” I had heard that he had heart problems before, so naturally I rushed to his website to see if he was in hospital again, all because of the Supreme Court ruling. I found this instead: “And I can’t tell you how sick I am. I am literally sick over what happened yesterday. I don’t know how else to describe it. Literally sick.” Then he goes on to explain his political concerns.
No, Rush Limbaugh, you are not literally sick. You are figuratively sick, at best. Unless you present me with the tab from the team of paramedics or at least a bill from the pharmacy, I am forced to believe you do not know your Mother Tongue.
The evidence mounts. A quick search showed that a few days earlier he said this: “I don’t believe what is happening in this country. I literally can’t believe it.” Since not believing what is happening in this country is not a figure of speech or a metaphor, there is surely no figurative meaning to define oneself “literally against.” Or how about this: “And it created in me this impression of helpless waifs who literally were screaming with their mouths open unable to do anything” – since the impression is strictly in his own head, literal has no meaning at all. It is all air, imagination.
This abuse, of course, is not limited to Rush Limbaugh. We are coming late and reluctantly to this particular train. There’s even a website called “Literally Unbelievable: Stories from The Onion as Interpreted by Facebook.” I searched in vain for evidence that the website had created this title tongue-in-cheek. Alas, in vain!
As H.W. Fowler writes (while taking the word to task for other sins): “Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.”
My agonies were far from over. No, no, Hillary, not you, too! Here’s what Hillary Clinton said when she heard about the same ruling: “You know, I haven’t had the chance to read the decision. I literally just heard as we landed that the Supreme Court has upheld the health care law. Obviously I want to get into the details, but I’m very pleased. That’s how I hoped it would turn out.”
She literally heard? “Just got off the plane,” I suppose, could be considered a figure of speech, though it would be a bit of a stretch. But hearing is not a figure of speech. We cannot even give this a reluctant pass.