The Grammarphobia Blog

Who pays the tab?

Q: I know you’ve discussed word “literally” on the radio (literally a half-dozen times or more), but a colleague and I are at odds over its use in the phrase “literally driven crazy.” He thinks it’s all right, but I believe it’s incorrect to use the word “literally” with a figurative expression like “driven crazy.” Would you please arbitrate? There’s a bar tab at stake.

A: With a bar tab at stake, I’ve rolled up my sleeves and given your question special attention. It turns out that all three words – “literally,” “driven,” and “crazy” – have had many interesting twists and turns over the years.

Let’s start with “crazy.” It first showed up in English in the 1500s, meaning full of cracks or flaws, but by the early 1600s it was being used to refer to a person of unsound mind. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for this usage, dating from 1617, refers to someone who “was noted to be crazy and distempered.” People began using the word more loosely, however, in the 1800s with phrases like “to be crazy about something” or “to be crazy for somebody.”

Now on to “driven.” The verb “drive” is a very old word in English, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, according to the OED. It initially meant to force living beings, whether people or animals, to move on or away.

By 1300, it also meant to force someone into a state or condition, such as to drive someone to scorn, suspicion, or impatience. By the early 1800s, it was used for driving someone crazy. The earliest reference for this usage is in Shelley’s first big poem, Queen Mab (1813): “Or religion Drives his wife raving mad.” So “driven” isn’t really being used in a metaphorical sense when you say someone is driven crazy. You don’t need an oxcart or a limo to be driven.

Finally, let’s look at “literally.” In contemporary usage, it means actually or to the letter. It doesn’t mean figuratively or virtually or emphatically, though it’s often used that way. I should mention, however, that “literally” has a long and complicated history. It originally meant to the letter, but it was being used for emphasis by the late 17th century.

Over the last century or so, usage authorities have insisted on a return to a literal use of the word “literally.” I agree with them. But if you’d like a second opinion, check out the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower’s article on “literally” in Slate.

Now, back to your question: is “literally driven crazy” correct English? In my opinion, it’s correct as long as you’re referring to someone who’s actually driven insane. In most cases, however, “driven crazy” is used loosely and it would be wrong to add “literally.”

So, you’re probably right, but for the wrong reason. Maybe you and your colleague should split the bar tab. Drink up!

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