On Tuesday nights our church opens its doors to anyone in the community who wants a home-cooked meal. This week I came to the Food Cupboard dinner with salad for 40, and after our mini-church group had finished ladling out our wares, I sat myself down at one of the tables, next to an old man with a long, unkempt beard, a cockeyed fishing cap, and wearing all the clothes he owned. He had his face in his plate, ate gustily, and didn’t say a word the entire meal.
I was telling a fellow church person across the table that “my writing job with the magazine literally fell out of the sky 15 years ago.” Suddenly, without looking up from his food, the scraggly man to my left said, “You say it literally fell from the sky,” correcting me (rightly) on my misuse of the word “literally.” My jaw dropped.
The irony is that one of my pet linguistic peeves is the misuse of “literally” in exactly the way that man flagged. Many are the times I have felt disdain for a news anchor or politician or public figure who used “literally” when he or she should have used “virtually” or “practically” or “effectively” in a phrase. I have always made a point to avoid that particular transgression, and even as I was using it at the table I was aware of its wrongness but made a split-second decision to go ahead with it because I judged it more communicative in the present company.
I’m not sure why I share this with you except that it happened to me and I thought it was funny. But shame on me:
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)
When dinner was over, a fellow church member came up to me and said, “Wow, you got that man to open his mouth. I see him every week and never knew he could talk.”