There is a very important question being tackled again by certain smart people of the Internet, and that question is this: What, exactly, is the worst word on the entire planet? Any time this question or one like it is broached, an opened floodgate of response is ensured, likely to include words like moist, fecund, phlegm, artisanal, or if you work at The New Yorker, slacks. We continue to believe that coöperation is öffensive, as is the corresponding word, diaeresis, which remains ever so hard to spell no matter how many times we type it.
On Thursday Sarah Miller made a strong argument on The Awl for literally as our English-speaking community's worst word. This is not a bad word to choose as the very worst. Flagrant misuses abound, and it's ever so annoying when people say literally when they actually mean not literally. Literally, in fact, is rarely used when it should be used, which is almost never, and almost always when it shouldn't.
I recall vividly, if not literally, an instance in which I had to correct a very good friend who said the pavement was so hot that her bare feet were "literally being scalded." They weren't! We haven't spoken since, literally, by which I mean, of course we've spoken, what does it even mean to speak literally? Miller offers up five reasons that literally should take the crown of worst word ever, including "People use literally because they're always lying and they think literally makes their bullshit sound better"; "People use literally because they feel like all their stories have to be exciting" (these two reasons are literally quite similar); and well, here's the thing about literally: It's an unnecessary word. There is almost literally no occasion in which you need to use it, and rarely an occasion that it does anything to make what you're saying better. It's a waste of space, word decor that undermines the point of what's being said.
It's almost like I'm making the case for Miller, and I do agree with her: literally is a word that we should be very, very careful around. But actually I think there's a word that's worse. Actually, did you see what I did there? While literally and actually can be used interchangeably, actually has a bad attitude. Literally can be mocked and laughed at, because literally almost no one uses it correctly. Actually is more sneaky, a wolf in sheep's clothing. Actually is the word that you use when you're actually saying, "You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot." (Actually, my name is Jen, not Jane.) The fact that it often comes out so passive aggressively makes it worse than literally, too.
Take this example, from a casual bar scenario:
Your date: "I brought you a gin and tonic."
You, frowning, wondering to yourself why you ever agreed to be set up at all, blind dates are the worst: "Actually, I asked for a vodka soda."
Or a workplace setting:
Your coworker: "Do you want half of my sandwich? I can't eat it all."
You, frowning, wondering to yourself why your coworkers are so oblivious to your everyday regular habits: "Actually, I've been on a no-carb diet for months now."
Or at the doctor's office:
You: "I have an appointment at 4 p.m. with Dr. Applebaum. For [your name here]?"
The receptionist: "Actually, I don't see your name here."
You, leaning over the desk at the computer, pointing: "Actually, that's it, right there."
The receptionist: "Actually, can you step back a bit? You're actually invading my personal space right now."
The doctor, emerging from a back room in a white coat, speaking to the receptionist: "Actually, Mary, I'll take [your name here]."
You follow, stepping into a room when the doctor stops.
Doctor, frowning, wondering why everyone is such a moron: "Actually, I'd like you to get your blood work first. Can you actually follow me to one of technicians?" Looking at his watch, sighing. "Actually, you'll have to head over there yourself. I have another patient to attend to."
I could go on and on, but, actually, I'll save you the trouble of telling me, actually, you get it. Actually is a word worse than literally because it is a secret criticism, an indirect jab, a correction with a barb. It is the "talk to the hand" of the adverb community. And even when it's being used nicely, it's unnecessary, a waste of space. "Actually, I'd rather have pizza," can be said just as easily as "I'd rather have pizza," so why say actually at all? If you really find yourself in a situation in which you need to say actually, how about choosing, simply, really or truly, or perhaps verily or even forsooth instead. At least then you have the benefit of sounding charmingly old-fashioned and not actually like kind of a jerk, quite literally.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.