Photo: Ben Tsai/Flickr
I'm not talking about the Corrective 'actually,' also known as the Man 'actually,' which is when someone (not necessarily but almost always a man) slides into your mentions to tell you How It Really Is. Once upon a time, the Man 'actually' was a meme—"It's about ethics in gaming journalism" just doesn't have quite the same ring, does it? 4chan to the rescue! These days, the Man 'actually' almost never even employs the word 'actually'—at this point anyone who's actuallying you by using the word 'actually' is almost certainly joking. This Silent or Implied 'actually' is the deadliest, because it is unself-aware, just like a man, and yet also somehow so clumsily annoying, like someone mouth-honking the wrong-answer buzzer sound, "ENNNG!!!" in your face.
But I'm here today to talk about a subtler version of this misguided verbal tic: the Backhanded 'actually':
"Actually, the movie was pretty good!"
"I think this might work, actually!"
"I actually love the way that looks."
"I have to hand it to her—she actually did a good job with it."
The implied phrase here is, "which is weird because I didn't think so at first. In fact I totally thought it was going to suck." It's a silent compliment killer, this 'actually.' I would wager that more than half the time it's used, it's not even intended that way, but instead tossed in as filler, which is actually the most common usage of 'actually.'
(A close but distinct cousin is the Couching 'actually' for when you're not sure, and you put it there just in case, to clarify that you're certain you're uncertain. A sibling of this is the Letdown 'actually,' for when you want to disappoint someone gently: "I have plans, actually.")
But the Backhanded 'actually' is pernicious because it makes you seem like an even bigger asshole than you are. You really expected the philharmonic to be kiiiiiind of a disappointment. You genuinely believed the dress would turn out ugly. It doesn't matter whether or not those statements are true; the effect is that you wanted us to know you previously held a lower opinion, but you have been pleasantly surprised. It seems like a nice thing to say—a way of seeing the glass half full—but it's not. It's an annoying way to say you're walking around in a constant state of dissatisfaction. WELL YES, OF COURSE YOU ARE! Aren't we all? You're not special.