Technology, grammar, and more technology.

Taking Things Literally

Being literal isn’t usually considered fun. A lot of people find it annoying, and for good reason. When you say you’ve got five minutes left in your shift/class/workout, you don’t want to hear “Actually, it’s four minutes and thirty seconds.”

But it’s not always bad. I kind of enjoy it sometimes. Especially when you’re turning common phrases on their heads.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

What You’re Saying vs. What You Really Mean

Here are some English phrases we use and give very little thought to. Time to give them some thought.

1. “You’re one in a million!”

What you’re trying to say: You’re not like everyone else. You’re unique in a way that a lot of people couldn’t replicate.

Yeah, but…

If you can believe (and who knows, because there are absolutely no citations), the average person meets anywhere from 10,000 to 200,000 people in their lifetime. Where is this average person? Where have they been? That’s a pretty wide range—it sounds kind of made up.

Okay anyway, if we take that out-of-the-blue number and assume it’s true (and we take 200,000, because let’s also assume you’re an extrovert), then the statement “one in a million” means something to you. You aren’t even going to meet a million people in your lifetime, so telling someone they’re one in a million is a pretty high compliment.

But the literal interpretation—the actual numbers involved—is a different story. There are around 7 billion people on Earth right now. Do the math. One person for every million on Earth, accounting for the total population, comes out to 7,000 people. Which means…

What you’re really saying: “You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met, or will ever meet. Except, statistically speaking, there are probably 7,000 other people on Earth exactly like you.”

Seven thousand people. Just like you. Sleep on that one.

2. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world…”

What you’re trying to say: “Watch your back out there. The world’s full of people who will do whatever it takes to get ahead—including throwing you under the bus.”

Yeah, but…

Dogs are pretty domesticated. A typical dog interaction consists of barking, sniffing, and occasionally sex. They’re not exactly known for eating each other.

Even in the wild, dogs run in packs. Wolves, coyotes, dingoes, whatever: they all hunt together. They might kill each other sometimes, but it’s usually to establish order, or because one dog called the other one fat, and god damn it, why won’t you leave Rex alone about his weight?

It’s rare that dogs resort to cannibalism. And when they do, it’s usually in extreme circumstances. It seems odd we would use such a hyperbolic expression every day, especially about a species known for its loyalty and pack mentality. I guess “it’s a fish-eat-fish world” didn’t have the same ring.

What you’re really saying: “This is such a fucked-up place the animal kingdom has literally perverted its natural order. You should go ahead and get some self-defense training. Maybe a gun.”

3. “I feel like a million bucks!”

What you’re trying to say: “I feel so good it’s like I’ve just won the lottery!”

Or maybe:

“I feel like it must feel to have a million dollars all at once! That is to say, I feel superb!”

Yeah, but…

Okay, let’s iron out some details here. Are we talking cash or wire transfer? A million dollars in cash is probably more exciting than a message from your bank, right? I mean, right? Not that I wouldn’t take a million-dollar bank transfer and be happy about it. There’s just something about cash.

So it’s cash. What denominations are we talking about? Twenties? Fifties? Hundreds? Thousands? I’m assuming, since we’re talking about a large sum of money, we’re asking for our money "bank robber style": one million dollars in untraceable, unmarked twenties.

Right, so if Wikipedia and are to be believed (suspend disbelief again), American paper money is about 1 gram per bill. Since Canadian money is now plastic Monopoly money, and it’s lighter, let’s say that it's—oh I dunno—0.7 grams per bill.

So, one million dollars in twenties is 50,000 bills. Multiply that by 0.7 grams, and that’s 35,000 grams, which is about 77 pounds.

Wait, seventy-seven? That’s a lot lighter than I thought it would be. I guess you can rob a bank with a Mini Cooper.

What you’re really saying (assuming you’re talking about untraceable, unmarked twenties, and we know you are): “I feel extremely underweight and inconveniently shaped. I should probably make a doctor’s appointment very soon.”

And there you have it. Three shining examples of why being literal is fun sometimes.

Well, not shining examples. They’re the same colour as all the other text, except bolded. Unless you had some fingerprints on your screen. Then they’d be shining. Or if you spilled glitter on your monitor for some reason, I guess they’d be shiny too. Or maybe if you were reading this through tears, that’d probably be pretty shiny.

Save me from myself.

Taking (Some More) Things Literally