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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)

91 Comments

    1. I don’t think these are commonly interchanged. In fact, I think that if you started using the former for the latter, people would think you were making a mistake even though some definitions of literally do apply. “Literarily” is such an awkward word, though, that I’d probably try to avoid it.

      1. Daryl.. ye of little faith, it’s not a scary word literally! Perhaps figuratively though.. Then I also have a daughter whom is now 20 and am honestly, far too used to using the word… (I just leave it out when I talk avidly to adults…) :D

  1. You had me chuckling away here. This kind of analysis can be applied to a number of different words in the same way. I remember someone I knew groaning about the miss use of the word “unique” at some length. That made me laugh as well. Thanks for the laugh

  2. Playing devil’s advocate, it seems a little on the nose to call it the ‘misuse’ of literally (leading to its growing acceptance as recorded). Language is mutable and constantly changing, that is, evolving. By way of example, the word ‘manage’ was most likely used to mean ‘horse handling’ – at least the earliest recorded uses of the word (16th century) place it in this context. It’s also derived from similar French and/or Italian words with the same meaning.

    Most of the words we use these days have shifted from their original literal senses – it’s just that we’ve grown up with them in their modern contexts.

    Or consider the ways in which American and English iterations of English have developed – where we adopted the word autumn and dropped fall, American English has largely moved away from francophone spellings (ie color instead of colour) and introduced its own jargon (swamp for marsh for example).

    I’m not a particular fan of people saying literally when they mean figuratively or metaphorically, but I try (sometimes through gritted teeth) to accept that I’m not objectively right and they’re not objectively wrong.

    On the other hand, unique shouldn’t be prefaced with a quantifying word (most unique), cos dat junk is just wrong, dawg.

    I hope you’ll appreciate what I did there.

    Merry seasonal holidays.

  3. I don’t think ‘English usage snobs’ is the right way to begin this piece. It’s literally nothing to do with being snobbish. It’s about widely regarded as correct and widely regarded as incorrect usage. And it helps to maintain a distinction that would otherwise be lost if literally became acceptable in the sense of figuratively and you had no way of knowing which one of these was actually intended as the sense.
    Don’t get me started on misusing ‘compared to’ when meaning ‘compared with’, which happens so frequently I begin to despair…..

    1. Don’t be afraid: No distinction is going to be lost. It’s really rare for an exaggerated, figurative, or ironic use of a word to vitiate the so-called “true” meaning of a word, and people are astonishingly good at knowing when a word is being used straightforwardly and when it’s being used in some flexible, creative fashion.
      :-)

      1. On the contrary. :-) I teach English at a community college, including sections of pre-college writing every semester that are usually at least half-full of ELL students. And you’re right, multiple uses of words do cause some confusion (just like for our kids and for all of us, if less often).

        But my experience is that it just isn’t helpful to make rules where there are no rules. We’ve got plenty of those without being hardcore about peeves like this. Non-native English-speaking students love to (and need to) learn the language the way it is actually used, and getting the hang of an idiom, a figure of speech, sarcasm, etc. is often among their most satisfying moments.

        Peacably,
        KLP

  4. I don’t think it’s helpful at all to consider this an error *or* a misuse. At least not any more than using “awesome” to describe something that is manifestly ordinary, and where’s the harm in that? Nope, it’s an intentional, effective *use* of the word.

    And it has been forever (which I’m using here to mean “not forever”–y’all gonna be OK?) Slate did a nice piece on this several years ago.

    Embrace the figurative “literally,” folks. It’s awesome.

  5. Thanks for this informative and amusing blog. The problem with misusing words is that it can be embarrassing or, literally, get you into trouble, even breaking relationships or landing you in court. Short tweets with misused words are particularly dangerous. The shorter the message, the clearer it must be – something most on Twitter don’t realise.

  6. It’s the internet, really. Of course, texts and other forms of instant communication often give way to the degradation of words. However, the example used ‘literally scared me to death’ stinks of, say, a facebook status or a tweet. I don’t think anybody would be inclined to use it as a proper use of language in an essay or such like.

    It would be a literally disgusting use of language.

  7. great topic, great piece. and i’m tickled you gave the OED its due. it is a rarely used resource i’m afraid, and its going out of print is a bit tragic.

    that being said, i simply cannot resist ribbing you for using “puritanical” in the same way people use “literally” ;)

    top work. thank you for a witty and education post.

  8. This made me smile – I am an English snob!

    The misuse/new use of ‘literally’ does not wind me up anywhere near as much as the abuse the word ‘specifically’. If I hear another person say ‘pacifically’ instead of specifically I will figuratively blow my top!! I have heard two people today saying ‘to be Pacific about it…’. The Pacific is an ocean!

    Come on England, sort out the use of language . Literally.

    1. There’s a difference between hyperbole and not knowing what a word means. If you say that you “literally scared [your] children half to death,” we know that you are using hyperbole. If on the other hand you claim that you “literally scared [your] children to death,” you have no one to blame but yourself if child services or the police pays you a visit.

  9. Quite true, I once read a line in a book where one character said someone was “literally in pieces”. Once I was done rolling my eyes, I read on to the other character’s reply: basically the same as I was thinking. The person was NOT in pieces; and then there was something about how people use the word literally until it *literally* loses all meaning.
    Right, I’m off to own up to being an language snob and wrap gifts. (Literally) Merry Christmas!

  10. Amusing story, Daryl.. Although I ‘shudder’ to think of reading the words ‘I was figuratively scared to death’ or any thing of that type. I was figuratively stunned’ :)(< which here, is also telling me is spelt wrong) More amusement! I was figuratively amazed that WordPress are at times that old fashioned; that I no longer use their 'proof reader' proof in the fact, I prefer to do it myself! As for the blue underscore……. :/

    It's so old fashioned now, that a broader audience also means to bend the language somewhat.. for fear of losing your audience, one would think.. :D

    Australia has also come a long way to include and update even their dictionary's on words and use of to keep 'up to date' on more common usages…

    The Macquarie Dictionary Online ( http://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/anonymous@9c9101595739/-/p/dict/index.html )

    is updated annually, making it the most up-to-date Australian dictionary and thesaurus available. Subscribe now for fast and easy access to over 300,000 words and definitions.

    What is a regionalism?

    It's a word, phrase or expression used by a particular community in particular parts of the country. For instance, the prepared meat called devon in New South Wales is called Belgium sausage in Tasmania, Empire sausage in Newcastle, fritz in South Australia, polony in Western Australia, Windsor sausage in Queensland and German sausage or Strasburg in Victoria.

    Australian Word Map is a co-production of the Macquarie Library Pty Ltd and ABC Online. It is an interactive website that is recording Australian regionalisms into one big database. As yet, most of Australia's regionalisms haven't been documented, let alone included in Australian dictionaries. So ABC Online and Macquarie Dictionary have designed an interactive online project that will document this part of our oral history.

    Definition of literally, From the Oxford dictionary, However….

    ( http://oxforddictionaries.com/ )
    adverb
    in a literal manner or sense; exactly:
    the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout
    tiramisu, literally translated ‘pull-me-up’
    informal used for emphasis while not being literally true:
    I have received literally thousands of letters
    In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’, as for example in
    I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally
    . In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in
    they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground
    . This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects
    (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.

    Hope you and others will enjoy the interpretation! :)

  11. Amusing story, Daryl.. Although I ‘shudder’ to think of reading the words ‘I was figuratively scared to death’ or any thing of that type. I was figuratively stunned’ (< which here, is also telling me is spelt wrong) More amusement! I was figuratively amazed that WordPress are at times that old fashioned; that I no longer use their 'proof reader' proof in the fact, I prefer to do it myself! As for the blue underscore……. :/
    It's so old fashioned now, that a broader audience also means to bend the language somewhat.. for fear of losing your audience, one would think..
    Australia has also come a long way to include and update even their dictionary's on words and use of to keep 'up to date' on more common usages…

    The Macquarie Dictionary Online is updated annually, making it the most up-to-date Australian dictionary and thesaurus available. Subscribe now for fast and easy access to over 300,000 words and definitions.

    What is a regionalism?
    It's a word, phrase or expression used by a particular community in particular parts of the country. For instance, the prepared meat called devon in New South Wales is called Belgium sausage in Tasmania, Empire sausage in Newcastle, fritz in South Australia, polony in Western Australia, Windsor sausage in Queensland and German sausage or Strasburg in Victoria.
    Australian Word Map is a co-production of the Macquarie Library Pty Ltd and ABC Online. It is an interactive website that is recording Australian regionalisms into one big database. As yet, most of Australia's regionalisms haven't been documented, let alone included in Australian dictionaries. So ABC Online and Macquarie Dictionary have designed an interactive online project that will document this part of our oral history.

    Definition of literally, From the Oxford dictionary, However….

    adverb
    in a literal manner or sense; exactly:
    the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout
    tiramisu, literally translated ‘pull-me-up’
    informal used for emphasis while not being literally true:
    I have received literally thousands of letters
    In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’, as for example in
    I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally
    . In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in
    they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground
    . This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects
    (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.
    Hope you and others will enjoy the interpretation! :)

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