Back in the day when “bloody” was quite a serious swear-word here in the UK – and those days did exist, my child – impish schoolchildren would follow it with an innocent “but I’m only quoting Shakespeare, sir!”
Well, I feel Moby-Dick has given us all permission to swear, grammatically speaking. In the following extract (from “Knights and Squires”), Ishmael claims “native Americans” (meaning, of course, whites born in America) are better suited to management and white-collar jobs, while the people of other countries are better suited to blue-collar. Actually, it’s not the point, but here, as elsewhere, it’s unclear whether Melville is being serious, or whether he’s poking fun at the lazy racism he saw around him. Certainly there is much else in his writings and life that suggested he opposed racism to a degree extraordinary for his time. Be that as it may, here’s the extract:
Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads. The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American literally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles. (Emphasis mine).
What? The misuse of literally predates Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Yes, and it predates Melville: in fact it has an honourable pedigree going back to Jane Austen and forward to Joyce and Bellow, as ten minutes on the tubes will convince you. I don’t like it, because it’s a cliche, and we can all do better, but it is valid.
As always, xkcd deserves the final word: