A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was telling me about a horror movie he’d just seen, and he ended his narrative by saying, “I was literally scared to death!” My first thought was, not unless I’m getting this information in your Memoir from Beyond the Grave. The word literally means actually or really, as in There are literally thousands of people following her on Twitter. That’s a completely believable and verifiable fact. However, if someone says he literally exploded with anger, well, probably not. What’s happened here is that so many people have misused the word literally for so long, it’s become acceptable to use it incorrectly. This has happened with other words, too, the best example possibly being the word bye as it’s both used and misused in professional football. The NFL gives the two teams with the best regular-season records in each conference a bye in the first round of the playoffs, meaning they’ve earned the right to skip that first week. That’s a correct usage of the word bye. However, during the regular season, every team in the league gets one week off, and that’s what it should be called, an off week. But somewhere along the way, someone began referring to that off week as the bye week, and thanks to the Internet, that term went viral and was repeated thousands and thousands of times, until it eventually became part of our national lexicon.
A final example of this linguistic phenomenon involves the word factoid. A little history lesson first. Factoid was coined by Norman Mailer in 1973. Mailer stuck the suffix –oid (which means resembling or having the appearance of) on the word fact to create factoid, which he said referred to “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” Jump ahead several decades, have a few people, including some in major media outlets, start using the word factoid to mean an interesting bit of trivia about a person or event, throw in the Internet (of course) and voila! You have a new definition for factoid.
Okay, let’s take a step back here for a minute. Does all this stuff matter? I mean, what harm is being done by someone saying he was literally scared stiff while watching the latest episode of The Walking Dead? Or by hearing a local sports anchor talk about your favorite team’s bye week in the middle of the season. In the greater, or even lesser, scheme of things, this is all pretty irrelevant. I’m well aware that there are far greater issues to be discussed and debated, and I completely get it that our language is constantly evolving. That’s why, for instance, we ask a new acquaintance where he or she is from instead of saying Whence comest thou? It’s just that I like to see and hear words being used properly. So I hope you’ll forgive me if the next time I hear a reporter on a national newscast say And here’s an interesting factoid, this longtime lover of language smiles a bit as he slowly, quietly and, yes, literally gives his head a small shake.
ABOUT ROBERT GERMAUX:
Although I’ve always enjoyed putting words on paper, the writer in me didn’t fully emerge until I retired after three decades of teaching high school English. I quickly wrote two books aimed at middle school readers, at which point my wife urged me to try a novel for adults. As is usually the case, Cynthia’s idea was a good one.
Over the next few years, I wrote several books about Pittsburgh private eye Jeremy Barnes. I took a brief hiatus from the detective genre to write Small Talk and The Backup Husband. Now I’m back and I just released my first Jeremy Barnes novel, Hard Court, on April 11.
In our spare time, Cynthia and I enjoy reading (of course), going to live theater productions, watching reruns of favorite TV shows such as “Sports Night” and “Gilmore Girls,” and traveling to some of those distant and exotic places I used to read about as a child. So far, we’ve been fortunate enough to walk in the sands of Waikiki, swim in the warm waters of the South Pacific and share a romantic dinner in Paris.
I love interacting with my readers and getting their input on my characters and stories. Please feel free to contact me via my website.
ABOUT HARD COURT:
Miles Bradshaw, the dot-com billionaire owner of Pittsburgh’s first NBA franchise, hires private detective Jeremy Barnes to look into what appears to be a simple case of harassment of one of the team’s players. But when Jeremy (JB to his friends) begins his investigation, the case proves to be anything but simple, eventually involving a local businessman with suspected criminal ties, a major FBI task force, a computer geek in California and a mob boss in Erie.
Along the way, JB, who can quote Shakespeare as quickly and easily as he can land a solid left jab, uses his wits and his ever-present sense of humor to wend his way through a cast of characters who range from the ridiculously inept to the ruthlessly lethal.
As Hard Court unfolds, there are numerous surprises and plot twists, culminating in a dramatic confrontation that neither JB nor the reader could have predicted.