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May I have a word: We are literally abusing ‘literally’ to death

Readers weigh in with new coinages to replace an old word.

So many people use it incorrectly, it's time to just come with a new way to say it.Egokhan/Adobe

Last time, I awarded reader Dan Chansky bragging rights for his mondegreen, or misheard song lyric, “Bob Moran,” subbing for “Barbara Ann.” Soon after, I was surprised to receive an email from a real-life Bob Moran. “Yes, as Robert Moran I have lived with the ‘Bob Moran’ lyric for many years,” he wrote. “I actually like the popularity and usually say The Beach Boys wrote that song for me — I love it!”

Massachusetts is blessed with more than 100 in-state Robert Morans, Whitepages.com tells me. You guys should have a party, sing your theme song together, and post a video on YouTube. You’d be the envy of the thousands of Bob Morans who live in other states.


Last time, I also challenged you to come up with a word to replace literally, since accepted usage now allows it to mean figuratively as well as its opposite, so its utility has become questionable.

Honestly, I was expecting to be scolded for suggesting that we might as well let literally have its head. No one did scold me, but a few readers sent me their favorite figurative literallys, to demonstrate how foolish those can sound.

Bradley Lown, of Portsmouth, N.H., wrote: “Someone once told me he ‘literally died laughing’ at a comedy show. It was evidently not true.” And Gary Bergmann, of Topsfield, sent me “a classic line from Sheldon in ‘The Big Bang Theory.’”

Sheldon: Amy. Thank goodness you’re home. I don’t know if you can tell, but I am literally losing my mind.

Amy: You are?

Sheldon: Isn’t it obvious? I just used literally figuratively. Like a crazy person.

Of course, I also received a wide range of suggestions for our new word. Rick Mattila, of Hull, wrote: “Since the word literally is related to the word letter, I worked with the base word alphabet and kept coming back to alphabetterally.”


Thomas Neely, of Newton, came up with “existually, a portmanteau word blending exist (has an objective reality) and actually (for real, in fact).” And Rick Blum, of Bedford, sent along “a word I have been using literally for more than a half century that just might work as a substitute for nonfigurative uses of literally: absolutavootally.”

But the coinages I liked best fell nearer to the tree. “The first word that sprang to my mind,” Tom Hayden, of Chelmsford, wrote, “is litereally.” Janet Tang, of Porto, Portugal, proposed that coinage as well, and also literIRL or IRLiterally, which incorporate the acronym for in real life, and “illiterally, for the misuse of literally.”

Admittedly, litereally on the screen or page presents a puzzle when it comes to pronouncing it. But why should we worry about that in a language that includes the likes of colonel, pharaoh, phlegm, sword, and Wednesday — to say nothing of Gloucester and Worcester? We’ll just have to get used to it. And when spoken, litereally does its job nicely.

Therefore, I’m awarding bragging rights to Tom Hayden and Janet Tang. Well done, you two! And I’d like to offer Janet the right to do some extra bragging for coming up with the clever illiterally — and for reading the Globe from Portugal.

Here’s the new challenge, from reader Elizabeth Philipps: “Is there a word for the people who walk their dog, pick up the waste in a colorful plastic bag, tie or sometimes not tie up the bag, and leave it on the sidewalk or somewhere in a corner of a building? I have not been able to figure out why they don’t carry out the rest of the task and use a trash barrel. I need a term for such people.”


Send your suggestions to me at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com by Friday, June 2, and kindly tell me where you live. Also, please remember that meanings in search of words are always welcome.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer and editor in Cambridge.