I’ve had myself something of a Joycean winter. A writer friend very kindly invited me to take part in a group reading of Ulysses. Seeing as it had been ten years since I first tackled the book, I thought it might be a good opportunity to reacquaint myself.
As a bit of preliminary work I decided to reread Dubliners. Turning to the first sentence of the final and most celebrated story in the collection, ‘The Dead’, I saw this:
Lilly, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.
There it is, I thought to myself, there is that ironic use of the word ‘literally’ which has crept into common speech and become a real point of contention among Language Watch types. Phrases such as ‘I literally died’ really annoy these people, and their uptake by young speakers simply confirms for them the English language’s inexorable decline into meaningless gibberish. When dictionaries began adding the figurative definition to their entries for literally, many were outraged.
Yet here was Joyce using it in exactly the same way a century ago. It’s the earliest example I know of but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were others out there. One of the great things about the English language, after all, is how readily it lends itself to irony. We do it literally all the time. Under normal circumstances it isn’t seen as a problem either. When I tell you I think the Chuckle Brothers are “really sexy”, for example, you can quite easily tell by my tone of voice that I mean the very opposite of both ‘really’ and ‘sexy’, and no one splutters and huffs about disobeying dictionary definitions. Not even the Chuckle Brothers.
For rather than being a harbinger of decline, it actually says something rather wonderful about the infinite expressive capacity of the English language that the word literally can mean both literally, and not literally.
Joyce, as ever, has the last laugh.