Tim Walker in a Dull Nation

Is the New Zealand public getting stupider, or is it just me?

Yes, I do appreciate the ambiguity of that query. Thing is though, my opening line could have been something flash like: ‘Are we as a nation propagating a generation of indolent lack-wits?’ – or it didn’t even have to be a question – ‘Evidently the majority of New Zealanders have become the personification of obtuse’ or something similar, but I didn’t fancy being labelled a pretentious arse-wipe, an arrogant arse-wipe or, heaven forbid, a conceited arse-wipe.

So I won’t do that.

There’s really only one point of reference to be made here anyway but that single point is more than adequate to justify such a provocative statement – or question as it were.

In a word: speech.

I really don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation that a person should be able to string together a coherent verbal sentence, and without having to resort to a lot of clichés, idioms, turns of phrase, figures of speech, or famous quotes. You see, the problem with mindlessly repeating a well known phrase is that often it’s a grammatical abortion and one seemingly innocuous abortion, can quickly lead to an unmitigated English genocide.

It is practically impossible to watch the news of an evening and not be bombarded by either juvenile grammatical mishaps: ‘That marathon was like, the most hardest thing I’ve ever done’; adults using puerile colloquialisms: ‘OMG they were like, totally skuxxing it up’; or the most common and by far worst offender, blatant word mis-usage: ‘The car just flew past me, he was literally going like a bat outa Hell’…

While I refuse to engage in discussion regarding the top speed of a hellish bat, the term ‘literally’ implies that words used remain true to their definition as recognised by the International Word Bank, or other formal language source. What the aforementioned speaker has done is confuse ‘literally’ with ‘figuratively’ – the latter being a description which most wouldn’t bother articulating anyway because simply, it’s implied. The expression ‘like a bat outa Hell’ could well be considered a simile, an idiom, or a figure of speech, but as no one truly knows just how fast a bat would come out of Hell, probably the last thing it should be called is literal.

The above example is certainly not the first time ‘literally’ has been used in the hyperbolic, analogical or figurative sense either – it has been happening for years and as peoples’ desire to maintain correct grammar becomes increasingly tenuous, this variety of erroneous speech will assuredly become more frequent.

I understand that by slinging into a sentence at any opportunity the word ‘literally’, people believe they are making their statement more emphatic. The issue here is that obvious misuse of speech tends to manifest the opposite effect. If for instance, while delivering a speech at a town meeting addressing youthful loutish behaviour you regularly refer to the offenders’ ‘fragrant’ instead of ‘flagrant’ actions, unless the neighbourhood kids have been drinking deodorant for kicks, not only might you be grossly misunderstood but those who pick up on your gaffe will likely lose respect for you, making your stand a whole lot less forceful.

Literally is the same thing. Someone continually using the word ‘literally’ to describe figurative situations, potentially, will literally become the butt of the joke.

‘He literally split his head open’ – this refers to a male who has sustained any sort of open head wound.

‘She literally killed it’ – this means she did a very good job indeed.

‘It was literally the most disgusting thing I ever saw’ – this means its appearance was somewhat less than desirable.

‘I am literally going to kill him’ – this means he has earned himself a stern talking to.

‘Yeah, come around man, we’re doing literally fuck all‘… Yeah. Sorry about that. As I recall, at the time I found myself incredulous that anyone could speak so stupidly. The term ‘fuck all’ is about as far towards slang as a speaker can trudge before tumbling into the realms of unintelligibility. After this person’s monstrous grammatical error, whatever respect I had held for them, promptly dissipated.

As a speaker, if you want your words to be hard-hitting, if you want people to take you seriously, my advice, spend less time abbreviating text and more time speaking fluent English.

Also try reading a book. A real book. No pictures.



Article by Tim Walker

Edited by Bren Lass

Photography by Lee Trolley

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