The grandstanding of politicians can result in all the famous speeches that we cite to prove the importance of rhetoric (e.g. John F Kennedy’s“Ask not what your country can do for you,” and Winston Churchill’s’ “We shall fight on the beaches,” and Abraham Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago”). It can also result in displays of idiocy and laughable ignorance (e.g. “Wind is God’s way of balancing heat”). In Canada’s House of Commons, speech, language, and phrasing are important, especially now that CPAC televises everything, websites like openparliament.com post transcripts of proceedings, and any moving and/or cringe-worthy sound bites are rehashed on the nightly news. Not only do politicians have to perform for their peers, they also have a 35 million-person audience to impress with what they say and how they say it.
So, seeing how I really enjoy Canadian political rhetoric (as evidenced by my last post), I thought it timely to look at the way our politicians employ the word that is at the centre of so much internet debate and vitriol: “Literally.”
It’s a grammar-nerd pet-peeve to hear people say, “I literally died laughing” when they really mean, “I laughed so hard I figuratively died from a lack of oxygen; obviously I am still alive and not a zombie.” Each time someone misuses “literally,” other people go nuts and bemoan the death of the English language (see relevant think-pieces here, here, and here). Now, just for one second, let’s harken back to high school English class and clarify that “literally” means ‘in a literal sense,’ and it is an adverb that intensifies literal statements and not symbolic or figurative ones. Figurative language, on the other hand, employs figures of speech and is wielded metaphorically, often to make a comparison or achieve a special effect.
First, let’s look at an exemplary use of “literally” that both emphasizes the literal point being made and manages to be sassy. The NDP MP Jasbir Sandhu was referencing Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt’s sit-down stunt during the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report when he said, “The government has literally failed to stand up for women’s rights.” Just for context, remember that Valcourt stayed seated as the crowd broke into a standing ovation at Justice Sinclair’s 41st recommendation: an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, an option the Liberals and NDP support but the Conservatives reject. Also, I cited this example so I could revisit this photo of Thomas Mulcair looking at Valcourt the way a disappointed dad would look at his failure of a son.
Now for the bad behavior: Conservative MP Chris Alexander declared that the ever-controversial Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act “literally takes us out of the Middle Ages” because it outlaws the marriage of people under 16. And yes, it is true that I enjoy not being a feudal slave with a life expectancy of 25 years, but was Bill S-7 the main catalyst for Canada’s passage from the 1400s into the twenty-first century? It’s possibly an overstatement.
I like this next pair of egregious errors, which I’ve grouped together, because both of them accuse the Conservative government of behaving like ostriches. NDP MP Charlie Angus declared, “The government has literally buried its head in the oil sands”; Liberal John MacKay also used that language, stating, “The Conservatives simply want to keep their heads stuck literally in the sand.”
Here we see the common error of using “literally” as emphasis in order to bolster one’s point. When I complain, “I literally ate an entire loaf of bread last night and now I cannot move for the pain,” it’s true and I am emphasizing that statement with “literally” to stress that I really am a carbohydrate-scarfing monster with no self-control. But these MPs have gotten all mixed up and tried to use “literally” as an intensifier for figurative statements. There is no way that a government can bury its head in the sand, because it doesn’t have a head, and even if we assume that “head” is itself a metaphor for “the head of state,” I very much doubt that Stephen Harper is buried up to his neck in Albertan oil sands.
Another example of a politician using “literally” incorrectly is Brad Butt, Conservative MP, saying that the Chretien-Martin government was “literally starving the provinces” to balance their budgets. Now look at what Alain Giguere of the NDP says about the much-maligned Nutrition North program that is meant to bring affordable and nutritious food to northern communities:
“In Nunavut, 32.6% of the population experienced food insecurity, 11.5% of which experienced serious insecurity… We are talking quite literally about starvation.”
Because that is a fact, and because it’s hard for many Canadians to accept that our industrialized country could have starving citizens, the use of “literally” is appropriate in this case to underline Giguere’s point.
Possibly the worst use of “literally” comes courtesy of retiring Conservative MP Peter McKay. In the course of a condemnation of ISIS, he stated that, “our country was literally born on a battlefield, Vimy, according to many historians.” Personally, I’d argue for the opposite notion: many Canadians literally died on that battlefield—3598 to be exact, with thousands more wounded. McKay may be confused about the difference between literal birth and the figurative emergence of Canada as its own nation. But I’m not a historian, so maybe he’s right: maybe Canada literally passed through the birth canal of Mother England in April 1917, and emerged as a wee, muck-soaked baby country.
It’s clear that many politicians don’t understand how to employ the word “literally”, but I was pleasantly surprised by the proliferation of figurative language. It makes political debate beautiful sometimes, as demonstrated by Senator Libbe Hubley’s proposal for a national fiddling day (which is now the third Saturday in May, if you’re curious).
I am convinced that fiddling is the perfect metaphor for Canada. Like Canada, it has deep classical roots but it is strong and confident enough to allow for many regional differences and nuances that give rise to a beautiful harmonic unity. Like Canada, it is a study in contrast. It is modest, yet it is extremely complex; it is accessible in terms of availability and affordability, yet difficult to master, as any player will attest. Like Canada, it embraces and accommodates many different styles and traditions, allowing each to thrive and flourish even while we create an entirely new sound.
And, since this is an article about Canada, I will concede that most politicians can use hockey metaphors with ease.
In the end, it is MP Charlie Angus who has the best grasp of figurative language. He even manages to combine my favourite things: literary devices and political insults. On two separate occasions he was called out by the House Speaker for being over the line. He responded in excellent form:
Mr. Speaker, it was a simile; it was not a metaphor. I would certainly never say that [the Conservatives] are a bunch of howling monkeys, but they were like a bunch of howling monkeys. I think that would be within the bounds.
Madam Speaker, I will correct that and make it a simile by saying that he [the Prime Minister] is like a political pyromaniac, as opposed to a metaphor that he is a political pyromaniac.
As we move closer to the fall election, let’s hope that politicians and their speechwriters will give us something compelling to listen to—something that will figuratively blow our minds, instead of literally driving us crazy with grammatical inconsistencies.
Jenny Mutton is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from McGill University. Jenny co-edits the PPGR and is interested in economic policy, trade, and cultural policy.