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A literal obsession

AFTER RUNNING in the middle of the pack for a long stretch, literally seems to be gaining ground (figuratively speaking, of course) in the Annoying Words Sweepstakes. There's even a website devoted to the (mis)uses of literally with commentary and animated illustrations, including a boy ''literally coughing his head off" (literally.barelyfitz.com).

Last time I checked, the Globe wasn't represented on the ''Literally" weblog. But Richard Siegel of Westford e-mailed to comment on a recent headline that may get us listed: Over a story on the increase in houses being sold at auction, it read ''Sellers literally put homes on the block."

''I'm guessing that the block refers to what slaves, or maybe farm animals, were placed on when they were auctioned off, suggesting that your typical block would have been just a few feet square," wrote Siegel. ''So it's very hard for me to imagine how sellers would be able to place anything other than a dollhouse 'on the block.' ''

Siegel's complaint is a standard in the usage books. As Jesse Sheidlower noted last year in Slate magazine, critics have been objecting to the loose usage of literally for more than a century--but writers were taking such liberties long before the critics noticed. When Alexander Pope, in 1708, wrote ''Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same," he couldn't have meant ''literally" (nor ''exactly," for that matter) as the literal truth.

Thoreau, Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and Vladimir Nabokov have also been fingered as literally abusers. Even the writer Jean Stafford--a usage hardliner who claimed to have posted a sign on her door forbidding the misuse of hopefully (''Violators will be humiliated")--was more tolerant in fiction, in one story describing a cat as ''having literally millions of kittens."

Most of the time, such adverbial hyperbole goes unnoticed. If you observe to a friend, ''We're wearing exactly the same shoes," you might mean that they're the same brand and design, or merely that they're quite similar, but you don't mean ''exactly the same"--unless you're taking turns with one pair of shoes. We don't mind ''that was insanely good," or ''I was absolutely blown away" as statements of extreme enthusiasm.

But literally has a special problem when it's used as an intensifier: Matched with a vivid metaphor, it can look as if it's being forced to mean its own opposite. ''I was literally dying for a Coke," ''he literally took my head off," ''she's literally on fire"--these are the images that get readers' figurative goats.

But is the Globe headline the same sort of thing? I think there's one more twist involved, one that involves that block. Originally a solid, flat-surfaced chunk of wood used for butchering, executions, and other such work, block evolved to mean a stump or step one stands on to mount a horse, and then, as Siegel says, a stand on which merchandise is displayed for auction.

But the auction block is often not an actual block; items for sale may be shown on easels, under glass, or on the Web. And on the block has been extended further: It can mean simply ''offered for sale at the best price," with or without a formal auction: ''Knight-Ridder went on the block." If you think of that sense as ''figurative," then a house sale with a real auctioneer and bidders might reasonably seem ''literal" by comparison.

I'm not trying to sell you on the casual literally here, merely pointing out that we swim (or tread water) in a sea of shifting metaphors. A wounded Iraqi ''was literally peppered with shrapnel," said an NPR reporter last week; can you be ''literally peppered" with anything but pepper? (Yes, says the Oxford English Dictionary. Pepper has meant ''pelt with small missiles" for 400 years; it's figurative only if the missiles are words.)

And on the Web, one commenter objected to a thrown object ''literally flying" through the air--apparently any ''flying" without wings counts as figurative in her book.

Obviously, we won't all agree on the line between literal and figurative. But on the use of literally, everyone has the same advice: Don't write anything idiotic. You don't want readers to die laughing at you--figuratively or otherwise.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For four weeks' worth of The Word, visit boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman.

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