Literally 10 Phrases to Know
And some bonus content
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock,” for paying subscribers. This is where we focus on words, a quirk of history or literature, or something just plain fun.
If you’ve spent any time interacting with any humans in recent years — particularly those who skew youngish — you will have undoubtedly heard them use the word “literally.”
Such as describing their reaction to a situation by saying, “I was literally dead.”
And you, as the word nerd that you are, reflexively cringed (is there another reaction when you realize it?) at this unironic use of the word (the use of “ironic” is a topic for another day).
If someone was literally dead, then alert the media, for you have a latter-day Lazarus on your hands.
As you already surmised, dear reader, they meant “figuratively.”
But have you ever heard someone say, “I was figuratively dead”?
I didn’t think so.
In Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer has the following to say about “literally”:
“A respectable word that has been distorted into the Intensifier from Hell. No, you did not literally die laughing. No, I don’t care that all your cool friends use “literally” thus. If all your cool friends literally jumped off the Empire State Building, would you?”*
*I have now officially become my mother.
In case you missed it, Benjamin Dreyer was our latest guest on the Timeless Leadership podcast.
As much as we throw around the L word (no, not the Showtime series), it’s worth exploring some literally literal words.
That is, the literal meaning of foreign words that have been integrated into English. For example, when a Japanese samurai practices the ritual suicide by sword called hara kiri, it is literally a “belly cut.” When someone is issued a subpoena, it must be obeyed “under penalty.” And an orangutan is Malay for “man of the woods.”
Here are some other common foreign phrases that have made their way into the English language, and their literal meanings. And stay tuned later on: there’s bonus content you literally won’t want to miss.
Italian: Sung without instrumental accompaniment (literally ‘in chapel style’)
French: Complete freedom to act as one wishes (literally ‘blank paper’)
Italian: People who are well informed about something (literally ‘people who know’)
French: The sense of having experienced the present situation before (literally ‘already seen’)
French: person who has power or influence without holding an official position (literally ‘grey eminence’)
French: An embarrassing blunder or indiscretion (literally ‘false step’)
Latin: A conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous statement (literally ‘it does not follow’)
Quid pro quo
Latin: A favor or advantage given in return for something (literally ‘something for something’)
French: The ability to act appropriately in social situations (literally ‘know how to do’)
German: The characteristic spirit or mood of a particular historical period (literally ‘time spirit’)
And there we have it! Literally ten phrases and their literal meanings.
And now here’s that bonus content I promised.
There was a program (or more accurately, programme) called My Word! that ran on BBC Radio from 1956 to 1988. It was a quiz show in panel format, and the longest-serving host was Jack Longland, who was typically overseeing panelists Frank Muir, Denis Norden, Dilys Powell, and Anne Scott-James.
The teams were tasked with tracing the origins or words or determining their meanings, identifying short lines of poetry, and (for the gentlemen) telling a short story about how certain famous or semi-famous sayings were thought up — typically using some homophonic puns to arrive at their conclusion.
For anyone who enjoys the origins of words, puns and wordplay, and storytelling, this show is a hidden gem.
And it was this episode, at about 10 minutes 30 seconds, that inspired today’s newsletter.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.