A bone to pick with Beckett – An Irishman’s Diary about misuse of the word ‘literally’

Here at the Society for the Preservation of "Literally" as an Adverb of Truth (SPLAT), we were called upon recently to investigate a case involving the respected writer Samuel Beckett.

It concerned his fictional character Molloy, first name unknown, who in the eponymous novel claims on one occasion to have “collapsed, like a puppet when its strings are dropped, and lay long where I fell, literally boneless”.

Such usage of the l-word is not uncommon in literature.

But among the great authors, it can usually by attributed to irony (eg Joyce), or stylistic carelessness (Fitzgerald).


As for the many 19th-century writers who deployed it as mere exaggeration (eg Louisa May Alcott: "the land literally flowed with milk and honey"), they can be excused by the decadence of their era, during which the term had sunken into general misuse, as it threatens to again.

But Beckett was the most precise of writers, so is it possible he really did mean to leave Molloy temporarily devoid of bone structure?

Well, it may be relevant to note that, at the time of the alleged incident, the character is on drugs – slipped into his food by a woman who has adopted him as a replacement for the dog he ran over on his bike. Thus his feeling of bonelessness may be psychosomatic.

Then, too, the scene is a garden, which he shares with the woman. And given Beckett’s fondness for biblical imagery, it may be there is some allusion here to the original garden, wherein events left Adam, if not boneless, then certainly one bone down on the full set.

Also worth noting is that on the same page of Molloy (I nearly said the same paragraph, but since the paragraph goes on for 83 pages, I had to be more specific), Beckett uses another adverb, "coenaesthetically".

I had to look this up. But I now know it refers to “awareness of one’s body”. So on this basis, and since someone who can put the word “coenaesthetically” in a sentence is not to be trifled with, I have to give Beckett a pass on “literally”.

Whatever his motives for inflicting such drastic osteopathy on the protagonist, he probably knew he was doing.

We’ll come back to SPLAT in a moment – first a digression.

As grammarians among you will appreciate, many news events have been transpiring of late. Many have been happening too, but that’s a separate matter.

In its non-literal meaning, to transpire is to “ooze out, become known”. And in this sense, every new year brings an orgy of transpiration, via the release of files about things that actually happened 30 years before.

It’s the news equivalent of the annual exhibition of Turner’s watercolours, restricted by the original bequest to display in January only, when natural light is as its weakest.

Those old government files are equally sensitive. Protected first from the harsh glare of their immediate times, they are finally displayed three decades later, in late December, when sunlight and newspaper readership are at their least intense.

Among the most delicate in the latest exhibition was one that had been withheld for 75 years and has since been referred to us here at SPLAT.

As reported on December 31st, it concerned the case of a senior Garda, Ned Coogan, who in 1941 was one of a number of officers "forcibly retired".

Their alleged misdemeanours appear to have been political. And in protesting innocence, Coogan admitted he was no “paragon”, before making this startling claim (all the more worrying because it seems to differentiate between the merely metaphorical and reality): ”I cannot afford to cast a stone at any man no more than can any of those who are literally stoning me so mercilessly”.

Now, of all professions, policing is one in which there is a high risk of people literally stoning you, sometimes. But Coogan’s implication is that this was happening in Garda headquarters. And it would be very disturbing if such biblical punishments were in use there, even in the 1940s.

By a fortuitous chance, the report was in the same issue of this newspaper that carried a column by historian Diarmaid Ferriter, headlined "50 things we'll need in Ireland in 2017".

High on Ferriter’s list was banishment from the airwaves of people who “misuse the word literally”. I hereby award him honorary membership of SPLAT. And I wonder whether, in that capacity, and given his research skills, he would consider investigating Garda disciplinary procedures, circa 1941, and find out what was happening with the stones?