[Ed.: Are words just by themselves the essence of hyperbole?]
Death by Internet Hyperbole: Literally Dying Over This Column
By Jessica Bennett
From the New York Times
The text exchange was unspectacular: a friend explaining a video that had been posted by a classmate to his Snapchat feed. Jordana Narin, my 20-year-old research assistant, was half paying attention, sitting in my living room working on a project, texting between breaks.
“Omg literally dying,” she typed back, not missing a beat. She turned back to her computer.
But Jordana wasn’t literally dying. She wasn’t figuratively dying, either. In fact, she didn’t even crack a smile.
“I don’t even know what she’s talking about,” she told me when I asked. “I want to be like, ‘I don’t care.’”
But instead, she typed what to some may seem like the most dramatic response imaginable. Except that it wasn’t.
“It’s almost like ‘dying’ has become a filler for anytime anyone says anything remotely entertaining,” she said. “Like, if what you’re saying won’t legitimately put me to sleep, I respond with, ‘OMG dying.’”
R.I.P. to the understatement. Welcome to death by Internet hyperbole, the latest example of the overly dramatic, forcibly emotive, truncated, simplistic and frequently absurd ways chosen to express emotion in the Internet age (or sometimes feign it).
Other examples: THIS (for when a thing is so awesome you are at a loss for how to describe it); feeeeeels (for something that gives you multiple feelings); unreal!!!! (for when a thing is totally believable and only mildly amusing); yassssss (because “yes” will no longer do); -est (greatest, prettiest, cutest, funniest) EVER, which now applies to virtually all things; and “I can’t even,” for when something leaves you so emotive that you simply cannot even explain yourself.
There’s also a;lsdkjfa;lsdkgjs; meaning “I’m so excited/angry/speechless that all I can do is literally slam my hands/head/body against the keyboard” (thus producing a series of gibberish that usually involves the letters a, s, d and k).
“I use ‘I can’t even’ whenever I talk about babies or puppies, or sometimes couples, but not like couples our age, but older couples like my parents,” said Sharon Attia, my other 20-year-old researcher, a photojournalism student at New York University.
Other members of the “I can’t even” advisory system, she said, include: “I can’t,” “I just can’t even,” “I cannot,” “I literally cannot” and “I have lost the ability to even,” each of which can be used interchangeably to express hilarity, excitement, embarrassment, that something’s cute, that something’s hideous, or just that you’re freaking out.
But hyperbolic death is perhaps its own linguistic category, with recent causes that include (at least according to my Facebook feed): Beyonce’s Instagram (“dyyying”); a video of a huskie looking shocked when his owner wouldn’t give him the last bite of his food (“*dead*”); and Hillary Clinton, who was captured in a GIF brushing off the shoulder of her blazer during the 11-hour Benghazi hearings (“This is the best thing to ever have happened”).
Eternal rest can also take the form of “dying” (death in process), “not breathing” (first sign of possible death), “all the way dead,” “actually dead” and “literally dead” (just so you know), as well as “literally bye” (for when you’re about to die), “ded” (when you are dying so fast that typing an “a” would delay the entire process) and “RIP me” (after you’ve had a moment to process it). There’s also kms, or “killing myself,” which, as 15-year-old Ruby Karp, a high school student in Manhattan, explained it, can be used to say something like “ugh so much homework kms!”
In Jordana’s case, “dying” or “dead” had been used in recent conversations to respond to:
A friend drunk-texting.
Seeing a Dane Cook look-alike and his dog on the street.
An unlikely romantic pairing.
A friend live-tweeting “50 Shades of Grey” (so good she was “dying AND dead”).
How good an article was.
Hearing an author she admired speak (“omg actually dying”).
Eating Pringles in bed.
“‘Literally dying’ has become, like, the new LOL,” she said, referring to the acronym for “laugh out loud,” which, of course, if you know literally anything about Internet speech, means precisely the opposite.
The trend toward hyperbole appears to echo a broader belief among experts that young women are its first adopters. Studies have shown that women tend to be more expressive, using more personal pronouns, more emotive words, more abbreviations like LOL, as well as creative punctuation, emoji and even more descriptive hashtags.
But such speech is not limited to them. “I can’t even” has been around for at least a few decades, part of a linguistic concept known as “negative polarity,” when there are two negatives in a sentence. The use of “literally” in situations where “figuratively” would fit perfectly — you know, it was literally 100 degrees just last week — has been in use since at least the 1700s, said Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com. And hyperbole is in some ways necessary, as the impact of certain words erodes with time. (Think of how “great” used to mean really great, like Catherine the Great great, whereas now it’s hardly better than “good.”)
The Internet has taken all these speech patterns and hit them with a dose of caffeine: the need to express emotion in bite-size, 140-character bits; the fact that we must come up with increasingly creative ways to express tone and emphasis when facial cues are not an option. There’s a performative element, too: We are expressing things with an audience in mind.
“I think this may be one of the major parts for social media; you are stepping onto a stage,” said Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist and founder of Idibon, a company that uses computer data to analyze language. “Performance generally requires the performer to be interesting. So do likes, comments and reshares. Exaggeration is one way to do that.”
And so it is, then, that a member of the boy band One Direction shows off his pecs onstage, and girls on Tumblr coo that their “ovaries are exploding.” That when the pop star Taylor Swift hosts a series of surprise listening parties for a new album, her fans respond that “My poor heart could not keep up,” “call me an ambulance,” “we all died” and “I literally had to plan my funeral arrangements cause I wasn’t going to make it.” Even editors do it, writing headlines that declare “This rapper will restore your faith in humanity” (really? Will he?) or that you “need to drop everything and watch this.” Yes, it’s as if we speak in click-bait now, every response more dramatic than the last.
Yet if a bacon-flavored ice cream sundae gives you all the “feels ever,” or you are “dead” over a cute cat photo, how do you respond if something is actually dramatic?
One idea is to play dead. That’s the concept behind @omgliterallydead, an Instagram account that features a skeleton (“Skellie”) engaging in everyday activities: drinking a pumpkin-spice latte, relaxing in a sauna; out for sushi. Skellie is a play on death, clearly, yet when I mentioned him to a college student I know, she responded: “Skellie is LIFE!!!!” (What’s more dramatic than being six feet under, rolling in your grave, actual skeleton dead? “The afterlife, obviously,” joked Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist.)
Or, if you’re Madison Jones, Ms. Narin’s roommate who recently responded “dead” to a baby picture her father had texted her, you prompt a family-wide panic about the state of your health.
“What?? Dead what??” her dad texted. “Maddy?”
“Dad I’m fine holy cow!” she replied. “Dead at that pic cause it’s rly cute!!!”
Jessica Bennett’s first book, “Feminist Fight Club,” will be published in 2016.
© New York Times 2015