Let us now praise famous white men. Like Tucker Carlson.
When Carlson espouses his white supremacy, he does so with proper grammar.
Take last week, when he whinnied the following: “Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world. But they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”
On quick read, it appears that everything is wrong with that statement, whose propagation of white replacement theory, which has motivated mass murderers from Christchurch to Pittsburgh, led the Anti-Defamation League to call for Carlson’s firing. But despite his well-documented penchant for dressing up racist, white nationalist talking points in terms palatable for mass media, he got two things right that few others do: his usage of literally and hysterical.
Most people use literally as a synonym for really and hysterical as a synonym for hilarious. Both are wrong. Not as wrong as a bowtied Klan acolyte, but still wrong.
Most dictionaries use the word literal in their definitions of literally, which is annoying. But the definition of literal is unequivocal in its adherence to fact, to actuality. One Oxford English Dictionary entry makes the point clear: “That is (the thing specified) in a real or actual sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or distortion.” Yet most users of literally (as in, “I’m literally gonna explode”) do so as a metaphor, to exaggerate, or to distort. They’re literally wrong.
Hysterical is similarly abused, though its history is more tangled. The word describes someone who is literally in hysterics, characterized by uncontrollable emotion and fits of distress. It’s not something that’s funny. It should not be used to describe a woman — pretty much ever.
Hysterical comes from hystera, the Greek word for womb, so it’s long been associated with women. Starting in 1880, a century of medical writing characterized hysteria as a psychological disorder afflicting women. The American Psychiatric Association did away with that junk science in 1980, but the word’s negative female connotations have persisted.
Unless you’re describing Def Leppard’s 1987 magnum opus, you’re best off avoiding the word entirely.
For both literally and hysterical, the misuse is getting worse. Both have seen usage spikes in the last few decades, and probably not for the right reasons: hysterical’s usage is at its highest since Sigmund Freud misdiagnosed untold numbers of women in the late 19th century. Literally’s prevalence is its highest ever, and definitely not because things are more accurate than ever.
When even an unrepentant racist like Carlson uses them correctly back to back, language purists should celebrate, right? Not so fast.
Carlson might be ignorant, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. From James Madison to J.K. Rowling, there’s a long history of dressing up improper ideas in proper speech. Good grammar gives Carlson and his words the patina of respectability, and masks the fact that he’s speaking the language of white nationalists whose dangerous ideas fester on Gab and Parler.
For all of us, there’s nothing hysterical about the fact that that’s literally terrifying.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and Pyromania to firstname.lastname@example.org.