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English usage snobs all over the internet shudder when they hear the word “literally” used to mean its opposite. For…

English usage snobs all over the internet shudder when they hear the word “literally” used to mean its opposite. For example, somebody who claims to have been “literally scared to death” actually means that he was figuratively scared to death. If he had been literally scared to death, he wouldn’t be around to tell us about his fate. Search Google for the simple word “literally” and you’ll find no shortage of sites correcting the misuse. Some fun treatments include that of The Oatmeal (beware, it’s a little off-color) and xkcd.

Etymologically, the word “literal” has to do primarily with understanding the sense of the actual words used in a text rather than any allegorical or metaphorical significance associated with them. In the earliest cited uses of “literal,” it pertains to the letters themselves.

As I sat down to write a little piece describing the good and proper use of “literally,” I was surprised to find that even among some usage gurus, its incorrect use has begun to become accepted (if reluctantly). The OED gives the following definition of “literal” (definition 6.b.):

Used in figurative or hyperbolic expressions to add emphasis or as an intensifier: veritable, real; complete, absolute, utter.

There’s a cross-reference over to our adverb (this sense elevated to 1.c.):

colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

Of course, the OED does here acknowledge that although this usage is now very common, it’s generally considered irregular because it reverses the original sense of the word. Nevertheless, the venerable dictionary has accepted the usage.

After consulting the regular dictionary, I turned to another sort of dictionary, Brian A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage, expecting him to fold his arms and reject the word. He says:

When literally is used figuratively — to mean “emphatically,” “metaphorically,” or the like — the word is stretched paper-thin (but not literally).

He goes on to cite a few examples and then concludes as follows:

Although [an edition of Webster’s dictionary] acknowledged that literally coud be used to mean “in effect, virtually,” it didn’t record the complete reversal in sense that led literally to mean “metaphorically” or “figuratively.” This reversal appears to have been first recognized in the early 1970s.

So although he’s a little skeptical about the usage, even Garner doesn’t write it off as actually being rejected. In fact, on his five-point language change index[*] that ranges from “rejected” to “fully accepted,” this use of “literally” scores a 3 (“widespread but…”). In other words, it’s in the language and generally accepted even among the well-educated but may net you looks of disapproval from roving grammarians.

Garner does go on to label the use a “slipshod extension,” which he defines as the mistaken stretching of a word due to a misunderstanding of its original sense. He even gets in a little dig by quoting H.W. Fowler, who characterized the mistake as happening “when some accident gives currency among the uneducated to words of learned origin.” Garner may have had to accept the usage, but not without some protest.

It’s tempting to blame the whippersnappers who have little regard for our language for slipshod extensions, but this one happens to be much older than I had imagined, with several citations going back through the 19th century and even back to 1769 with this lovely figure:

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

My knee-jerk reaction remains to sneer at mis(?)use of “literally.” It’s one of those things I’ve sneered at for long enough that it’s a hard habit to break. But language changes, and this change seems inevitable. I suppose I’ll toss my hands in the air along with Garner. I don’t see the usage creeping into my own speech or writing, however. I think you can say figurative things much more evocatively without adding an intensifier like “literally.” In any case, you can substitute “practically” and retain sense along with the intensifier (although I suppose the intensifier here works through understatement, which is strange to contemplate). If you’re of a poetic turn of mind, you might substitute something lovely and meaningful instead.

* Lest you think Garner is a dour old Puritanical type, consider that in his entry on the language change index, he provides not only more descriptive definitions but also eleven other analogous scales. For example, his 1 – 5 scale is roughly equivalent to the school grades F through A. The golf analogy goes from a quadruple bogey to par. My favorite by far is the etiquette analogy, which starts low with audible farting, then progresses through audible belching, overloud talking, and having your elbows on the table until we land on “refined” as the number five option. (back)

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  1. I am definitely guilty of literally using that word wrong. :) Just kidding, but I am guilty and I didn’t know it. This was a very good piece. As usual, I learn a lot from your blog.

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    1. And it’s not really a “dumbing down”. Many words have changed their meanings from Old/Modern English to now. It doesn’t necessarily mean the language is losing its vigour — usually it just becomes more effective and economic (eg: sms language — it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as ‘bad’)

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      1. I know that languages change; I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is, for example, changing the definition if “they’re” and “their” so that they can be used interchangeably simply because a lot of people make that mistake (including myself once in a while). To me, there is a right and wrong when it comes to grammar and definitions. Changing definitions to accommodate people’s errors instead of fixing the educational system is not the way to go.

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      2. I can see why you feel so strongly about the correct usage of they’re/their as I also get a bit irritated when someone makes that mistake (not to mention the your/you’re mistake!). And for the time being I can see the practicality of this distinction in the language — it adds to meaning: it distinguishes between a possessive form and a subject+verb. So, therefore (for the time being at least) I do not think this rule will change as it still serves a practical, effective purpose.

        Using the word “literally” to exaggerate something figurative, in this same sense, then also serves a practical function. Nowadays it is meant ironically in order to hyperbolate.

        Therefore, all I’m saying is that language is complex, but if something serves a practical purpose (if it adds meaning or makes the language flow more effectively), then why should it be frowned upon even though it does not correlate with outdated laws? This new ‘mutation’ of the language is what makes it evolve.

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      3. It is evolution though, because using ‘literally’ when one should be using ‘figuratively’ serves more purposes. 1) Obviously the hearer knows that the utterance is meant figuratively (because of the speaker’s tone), so it doesn’t lose it’s meaning; 2) When thinking of figurative things in literal terms, a ridiculous (hence, humourous) image is conjured up in the mind of the hearer, thus making a statement more entertaining.

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      4. As I said, there’s a difference between hyperbole and demonstrating that you don’t know what a word means. When you’re threatening someone, exaggeration is sometimes useful, though the use of the word “literally” is superfluous nonetheless.

        “If you touch my dinner, I will literally tear you to pieces when I get back.”

        Hyperbole.

        “I literally murdered my friend yesterday because he touched my food.”

        Not hyperbole. He either murdered his friend, or is a flaming idiot.

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      5. You’re going to get mad at me, but I would say that “I literally murdered my friend yesterdqay because he touched my food” is a hyperbole and its function is not to threaten (as in the previous case), but to provide humour. But I guess you have to take the context into consideration ( as always ). If it so happens that this guy is a comedian narrating this story to an audience or if he is simply retelling it to his friends, then it seems functional.

        If, however, he said this alone in a dark room, he is most likely a lunatic.

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      6. There is nothing wrong with language changing to make sense, in fact, that is the whole point of language. To make it easier for us to communicate and understand each other. But how do you explain to someone learning English that a word means the opposite of what it means, because for years people thought it was funny or cute to use it incorrectly? One word might not make a big difference. You just have to memorize this one, because it doesn’t make any sense and the context of the sentence will never help you out. Our language is full of things that make no sense and make it harder for us to communicate (defeating the language’s purpose) because of this.

        That’s what bothers me about the defence this one. If we are using literally to mean figuratively, then we don’t really need figuratively anymore. As well, we need a new word for literally, since it has changed its meaning. What is the point of going through all of that when we already have two perfectly good words with those meaning that already make sense?

        Though really, that isn’t what is happening. When someone uses it and you point out that they are not really peeing on themselves their response is something to the effect of, “Yeah, well I didn’t mean literally, I meant figuratively.” They know what the words mean; they are with-purpose lying to you about it.

        I don’t like being lied to, even when people think it’s funny, even when I know they are lying to me, even when I know that they know that I know they are lying to me. Which is the case when this word is being ‘mis’ used.

        It is the ‘I’m cute and funny, because we both know I’m lying to you and you are supposed to think it is cute and funny that we both know I’m lying to you.’

        This is not the only time we do this. We do this when flirting; when we spew lies at each other to pretend this stranger we’ve just met is on some sort of inside joke with us, when there is no one on the outside of the joke and it was never that funny to begin with. It works though, because if they laugh they are into you, because anyone else would just be annoyed.

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      7. I like your response! Very well thought through. I have to say I still do not see why it is wrong to say ‘literally’ when actually meaning ‘figuratively’ — it’s not necessarily a lie; it’s an utterance that is made ironic in order to exaggerate a story for humourous effect.

        The fact that these intricacies make it difficult for others to learn a specific language is actually a beautiful thing — all languages are complex. In this way they mirror life and provide a humble reminder that everything does not always have to work out — a comforting thought.

        I do not think we should try to go against the evolution of language; not if a ‘mutation’ serves a purpose.

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      8. (It wouldn’t let me directly reply.) The non-purpose of saying literally is also part of the issue. In any sentence when it is ‘mis’used (and most of the time when used correctly) it is a useless word (much in the same way we use most ‘ly’ words needlessly.)

        If you omit a word and the sentence retains its context, then the word is useless.

        ‘I laughed so hard I pissed myself’ and ‘I laughed so hard I literally pissed myself’ mean the same thing. Either way we aren’t hearing ‘literally’ and knowing it means ‘figuratively’ in this circumstance. We are seeing the lack of pissed pants or figuring it out from the tone of voice or our previous social experience with this phrase that it is meant figuratively.

        The phrase itself and more importantly the word itself isn’t giving us any information we need and is dead weight when we used in this way. I get that it is ment to be funny, but it isn’t any funnier than omitting the word all together. Along with that, I don’t think anyone puts too much thought into it. They know what the words mean, they heard someone say it this way once upon a time, people laughed, so they repeated it hoping to get people to laugh.

        Most of the people around me don’t use this and if they do they are trying to be funny (by making fun of people who use it to mean figuratively), but I wouldn’t get into debate about it if someone around me did have it slip out. People repeat what they hear. That’s how we learn language.

        The idea that bothers me is making it be considered proper. People use slang and they misuse words for humor. That’s fine. Just don’t try to make it be considered proper just because the joke is so old it isn’t funny anymore. As someone mentioned earlier, just because many people can’t remember the difference between their, there, and they’re or to, too, and two doesn’t mean we should make it proper English that they are all interchangeable.

        In the same way, just because a lot of people find it funny to use words to mean the opposite of themselves doesn’t mean we should make that part of their proper usage.

        If we did this with just about anything else, I don’t think people would find it so cute or interesting or funny. Switch right and left around or stop and go and you’ll have plenty of pissed off people. It is only because literally is a throw-a-way word and it changes nothing in the sentence that some people have no problem with while others are only annoyed by it.

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      9. Hmm. I have to admit that what you said about ‘literally’ being a dead-weight in most instances is quite correct.

        The only linguistic argument I can still pose is that slang is not necessarily to be frowned upon. The purpose of language is to communicate effectively. Granted, if you’re talking to the queen of England, she won’t understand “yo, dawg, whatsup”, but the reverse is also true. If you’re talking to a ghetto kid in high English he/she will be like ‘uh-uh’ with a face that beams attitude.

        So language and its prescriptions are relative and, just as in any post-modern mindset, there is no right and wrong, but just a better/worse. So is it really that bad using ‘literally’? I feel as if arguing about it may be worse than actually just using it. Saying that, of course (after all this) I may be a bit of a hypocrite :P (logical consistency is very difficult to harvest after all).

        Happy blogging :)

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  2. My lesser trained ear has often heard it, but not registered that it is (literally) a reversal of the original meaning; and even as far back as 1769. I thought they were all purists back then.

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  3. I find the word literally useful when flipping out on my kids…especially my 13 yr. old son. He knows if I say “If you don’t sit down and get your homework done in 30 seconds I am literally going to throw you through that wall,” that it is time to do his homework and further delays are not going to happen. Now….bear in mind he has been asked nicely, then a bit more forcefully for probably over an hour and now it is getting late and I am frustrated. If I replaced literally with another word,ie. ” If you dont sit down and do your homework in 30 seconds, I will hyperbolically throw you through a wall.” it does not convey the potential urgency of the situation…..In other words, used in a threatening way, it has some impact because the other party doesn’t know that you indeed have no intention of harming him/her. Make sense? Thanks for the piece, well done….figuratively….I mean literally….

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  4. It may come to the point that no one can use ‘literally’ in its original/correct fashion because no one will trust it.

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  5. I know everyone here is too busy blogging and reading other blogs to watch TV, but there was an episode a few years ago on How I Met Your Mother that makes fun of this. Robin says “literally” all the time. It’s hilarious! I may be guilty of using this word the wrong way in one of my posts, but I did it on purpose in an attempt to make my statement sound a little more obnoxious. Does that still make it so horrible?

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    1. Not so horrible – eek I love the HIMYM reference! I’m like that every time I hear ‘General Admission’ or ‘Major Problem’ etc etc.

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  6. I am literally impressed by your grammatical acumen. Or conversely, I could say I’m literally blown away by… Of course if the end of the world comes tomorrow, then perhaps I will literally be blown away, and be forever deprived of your wisdom in the future ;)

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  7. There are the words “illiteracy” and “illiterately” to mean the opposite of “literacy” and “literately” respectively.

    It would be fair if the word “illiterally” could exist to mean the opposite of “literally”, regardless of how figuratively or emphatically the latter is or can be used to convey a point.

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  8. The beauty of it is that English is a living language which means that sometimes even the ignorant get a chance to change the way we understand words. (Literally) It took 9 years for Samuel Johnson to put his dictionary together. Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755 and kept on reviewing and revising it. Enjoyed your post.

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    1. Hey Mary, can I object to your use of “ignorant”? When you talk of language usage nobody is really “ignorant” they just have a slightly different colloquial language than you.

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