Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’

He literally glowed (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Last week I heard a news reporter on Irish television describe people as “literally gutted” by the news of job losses. She meant, of course, that they were devastated, not that their intestines were spilt: she used literally to intensify a figurative statement. This is typical of how the word is often informally used – many would say misused.

Like it or not, literally is used to mean more than just “literally”, and it has been for a very long time. Some people – I’m one of them – prefer to use it only in its narrower, more literal senses. A subset – I’m not one of these – insist on it. Let’s see where we stand with the dictionaries. The Shorter OED defines literally as follows:

In a literal manner, in the literal sense; so as to represent the very words of the original; so as to depict or describe the thing realistically; (emphasizing the use of a word or phrase) without metaphor, exaggeration, distortion, or allusion, colloq. With some exaggeration etc., emphatically.

Note the inclusion of a colloquial definition, the brevity of which belies the popularity of this usage. (The Literally Tsar might call it a “sheepish add-on definition”.) Merriam-Webster includes a helpful usage note with its two-pronged definition:

1: in a literal sense or manner: actually [took the remark literally] [was literally insane]
2: in effect: virtually [will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins]

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

I asked on Twitter how people felt about non-literal literally, and I was (figuratively) inundated with responses. It’s tempting to say that literally everyone has an opinion on it; certainly the range of these opinions is fascinating. At the risk of oversimplifying the ideas people shared with me, here’s a summary. Hover over a link for text…

Quite a few people said they were okay with it or (becoming) inured to it; others were annoyedshockedangered or bothered by it. Some people approve of its hyperbolic usagemany don’tAmusement (including enraged amusement) was a common reaction: there were lots of hyperbolic jokes about it. I was also treated to a breeding pun and a report of teenage shame. This pair of tweets exemplifies the editorial response.

The casual uses of the word to emphasise figurative or hyperbolic statements (“I literally exploded/died!”) are widely reviled, but they’ve been around for centuries and can be seen in the texts of many great writers. I’ve scattered examples throughout this post, some of them courtesy of MWDEU, as a counterpoint to the ridicule – and rage – that often accompanies the non-literal use of the word.

And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading)

Predictably, Facebook groups have sprouted up to heap scorn on non-literal literally. There’s also a blog dedicated to “tracking abuse of the word”; it’s on hiatus, but I’m sure they’ll eventually get around to fixing the misspelling of “passive-aggressive” in their blogroll. In the meantime, there’s the aforementioned Tsar’s Literally Project.

Daily Writing Tips recently joined in the chorus of opprobrium, railing against “literally the worst mistake you could ever make”. The hyperbole in the title is surely ironic, but the word does seem to bring out the crazy, pedantry-wise. In response, I left a comment that was perhaps a bit too soft on the ‘misuse’. Call it overcompensation.

.

XKCD: literally, at http://xkcd.com/725/

On Wordnikliterally appears on lists like The words I hate with a passion, Words That Don’t/Shouldn’t Exist, and, most worryingly, words that will make me hit you if used/used improperly. Then there’s The Oatmeal, the new darlings of populist peeving, who tell us that literally “means actually or without exaggeration”.

But this is just part of the story, one of several definitions on dictionary.com based on the Random House Dictionary. Scrolling down to the usage note, we see:

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration” . . . The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs.

The Oatmeal are funny, sometimes (their literally poster is a good example), but their language advice is a bit simplistic and context-free for my taste. Of course there’s no place on their poster for historical detail: it would take the sting, and the fun, out of their rage; they trade in rants, not nuance, which is fair enough except insofar as it encourages ill-informed peeving. But I’ll save that for another post.

It was also in the early 20th century that the first complaints about non-literal literally appear to have arisen. Ambrose Bierce grumbled in Write It Right that it is “bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.” H. W. Fowler (1926) was equally aggrieved: “we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate; such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible”.

Yet the word’s much-censured use as an intensifier of figurative statements has a “long and esteemed history in English”, as lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower has shown:

The earliest uses of literally were “in a literal manner; word for word” (“translated literally from Greek”) and “in a literal sense; exactly” (“He didn’t mean that literally”). By the late 17th century, though, literally was being used as an intensifier for true statements. . . . Eventually, though, literally began to be used to intensify statements that were themselves figurative or metaphorical.*

Sheidlower makes a very good point about the literal meaning of literal: that it would be

something like ‘according to the letter,’ but it’s almost never used this way. . . . So when we use literally to refer to something other than individual letters—to whole words, or to thoughts in general—we are already walking down the figurative path.

Language is fundamentally metaphorical, and with literally we have walked a very long way from the Latin for letter. “[I]t’s impossible to tell where literality leaves off,” writes linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “nor is there usually any practical reason for trying to do so.”

I felt faint, frightened literally to death. (Guy de Maupassant, ‘Fear’, in The Mountain Inn and other stories, tr. H.N.P. Sloman)

the wretch did not make a single remark during dinner . . . whereas I literally blazed with wit (William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch magazine)

Your favourite team/band isn’t “literally on fire”, but this guy is.**

Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole. (I’m Irish: I empathise.) They use an intensifier, maybe a few, believing that this will make their report more impressive, and literally often comes readily to mind. Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar concurs, calling it “symptomatic of over-reliance on exaggeration as a rhetorical device”.

He literally had to move heaven and earth to arrive at this systematic understanding (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. (James Joyce, Dubliners)

Logic and consistency cannot be forced upon language retrospectively or pre-emptively. Take the phrase “To be honest…”: When people preface something with this, it doesn’t mean they’re not usually honest. It might signal that they’re about to be unusually forthright, or to say something that contradicts consensus or expectation, or it might just serve as a kind of automatic alert, an invitation to listeners to pay special attention. We need not take these idioms too literally; they can acquire functions that don’t relate directly to their obvious meanings.

Ben Zimmer, in an article at Word Routes, considers other “adverbial intensifiers that would seem to describe something as actually existing in a non-metaphorical state” – really, truly, absolutely, positively – and wonders why we don’t hold them to the same standard. The acute sense of contradiction in non-literal literally is probably part of what annoys people so much: How can a word mean its opposite? This, however, is a common feature in English: literally could be considered an auto-antonym or contranym. I’ve written about these before.

‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit. (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby)

Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye. (Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre)

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the contradictory use of literally “does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself . . . but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive”. As such, it is following a familiar path taken by words like absolutely, totallyreally, and even very, which originally meant something like true, real, or genuine.

Intensifiers inevitably become less intense with use. Yes, it’s unfortunate, because this sort of semantic weakening can interfere with our notions of what is “absolute”, “total”, “real”, “true”, and “literal”, even if we are seldom confused by the use of these words in context. “Soon the hyperbolic forces ruin all meaning,” wrote a gloomy Anthony Burgess in Language Made Plain.

Is it too late to save literal literally? Has it been hyperbolized beyond hope, skunked beyond service? There’ve been suggestions that we use figuratively instead, but literally-lovers generally aren’t saying literally to mean figuratively – and anyway, they wouldn’t or couldn’t just switch on request.

I sympathise with Robert Fulford, who forecasts that “If things continue as they are, ‘literally’ will one day become just another emphasizer”; and with Neal Whitman, at Literal-Minded, who wants there to be a word “that signals you’re not speaking figuratively”, and finds that “literally is the best word for the job”.

[The Fourways] was literally teeming, stratified, with the shades of human groups… (Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure)

Every day with me is literally another yesterday (Alexander Pope, in a letter to Henry Cromwell)

Few would dispute that literally, used non-literally, is often superfluous. It generally adds little or nothing to what it purports to stress. Bryan Garner has described the word in some of its contemporary usages as “distorted beyond recognition”.

Non-literal literally amuses, too, usually unintentionally. The more absurd the literal image is, the funnier I tend to find it. And it is certainly awkward to use literally and immediately have to backtrack and qualify it (“I mean, not literally, but…”). Literally is not, for the most part, an effective intensifier, and it annoys a lot of people. Even the dinosaurs are sick of it.

For sure, words change their meanings and acquire additional ones over time, but we can resist these if we think that doing so will help preserve a useful distinction. So it is with literally. If you want your words to be taken seriously – at least in contexts where it matters – you might see the value in using literally with care.

Updates:

Michael Rundell at Macmillan Dictionary Blog has written a clear and thoughtful post about literally. After looking at (literally) a thousand examples from their corpus, and showing where and how potential problems lie, he finds that “the writer’s meaning was always perfectly clear”, and concludes that “the ‘problem’ use of literally looks like just another form of hyperbole”.

A characteristically helpful and sensible take on literally from Merriam-Webster’s Ask the Editor series, wherein Emily Brewster describes Dickens’s use of the word as “pure hyperbole, which is a legitimate literary tool”:

.

* Ben Zimmer has traced this usage back to the 1760s.

** Image from Spike Jonze’s video for California by Wax.

41 Responses to Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’

  1. I think you are literally on a hiding to nothing Stan! The use of literall as an intensifier irritates me but the battle is lost methinks.

    On the other hand if the news reader was shown covered in blood and holding in his intestines at the time perhaps he could well have been literally gutted…

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Stan:
    I think you will enjoy this Vikings Rendition of
    (g’wan, guess…..)

    “Literally”

    Overuseage? Well, duh!

    XO
    WWW

  3. Claude says:

    Fascinating, Stan. Merci! And I was able to post it on Facebook. I’m there to visit family and grandchildren. I see their fun videos and numerous photos. I thought why not offer them interesting, good English posts? The guy on fire will literally attract everyone’s attention. Oops!

  4. Markus B. says:

    A message from Google on this subject… ;-)

  5. Just so readers know, I’m GoldHoarder on Twitter, and wrote the tweet linked to from the word “people” in “quite a few people”.

    From that tweet, you might see that I agree in principle with the opinion you quoted from Neil Whitman, but in practise am not worried that “literally” is in danger of being misunderstood.

    (Neil’s post (and the comment on it by 4ndyman) raises an important point, which I would put this way – that there are degrees of literality; it is not binary. I’m pondering right now whether it’s coherent to argue that if you take “literally” to mean “as written”, which I think is etymologically true, then taken literally, “literally” cannot refer to spoken language…)

    I hardly ever notice non-literal uses of “literally”. When I do I might laugh at them a little, but I notice examples less often than I notice people writing about non-literal uses of literally. That is surely the ultimate proof that it doesn’t bother me too much. As I mentioned to you in an earlier discussion, if I have a peeve in this matter, it’s with people who say “people use literally to mean figuratively” instead of, as they should, “people use literally as an intensifier”.

    That’s all I can think of to add right now. It is easy to ramble on this topic, isn’t it?

  6. P.S. Yes, I missed the part of the post discussing the literal meaning of “literal”. This is because the Internet is only partly working from here right now. Many pages are not loading at all (including the Nunberg article). WordPress is loading with difficulty, and without formatting, which makes it hard to read and easy to miss things.

  7. Stan says:

    Jams: You’re probably right about the battle being lost, but I’ll be stubbornly keeping my own defences up.

    WWW: Ha ha! I had never seen that before. Thank you. It’s like something Trey Parker would write on a whimsical afternoon.

    Claude: Merci vraiment. I hope your Facebook friends and visitors enjoy the discussion. (And I see nothing wrong with your own literally.)

    Markus: Vielen Dank! I think Mr Schmidt is literally unable to stop himself using the word.

    Dragon: Thanks for your contribution, especially given the technical difficulties you had with the Internet. I was very interested in Neal’s post and its comments, about how and to what extent literality spreads across a sentence. The literality of literal(ly) is discussed briefly by Jesse Sheidlower and Geoffrey Nunberg, but it’s something I deliberately mentioned only in passing, as the post was growing beyond what I considered a sensible length. Yes, it’s all too easy to ramble on!

    When you say you hardly ever notice non-literal uses of literally, do you think it’s more a case of it not being used much in your reading and listening experiences, or that it is but it doesn’t attract your attention? (Or both, or neither: this isn’t binary either…)

  8. Chris says:

    Great post! Just FYI, MadTV in the US had a running skit about this use of literally. An example here.

  9. language hat says:

    Few would dispute that literally, used non-literally, is often superfluous. It generally adds little or nothing to what it purports to stress.

    I would strongly dispute that. The whole idea comes from the ridiculous notion that language exists, or should exist, only as a vehicle for logical and scientifically verifiable content. That is not how language works, nor can it be as long as humans are not computers, which I hope will continue to be the case for a long time. I have no problem with nonliteral “literal,” and I find it amusing that so many people get so exercised about it.

    And there is no reason to pay attention to anything Bryan Garner says about language unless you enjoy returning to the halcyon days of a century ago, when people took his sort of hidebound conservatism seriously.

  10. Stan says:

    Chris: Thanks for the kind words and the link. I remember seeing those skits a while ago, via Language Log I think. The idea appeals to me; the jokes, less so.

    LH: I suppose it’s in the mind of the listener, and I extrapolated (a bit carelessly) from my own experience. Though intensive-literally doesn’t bother me, I can’t remember it ever impressing me either, certainly not with the emphatic force its adherents suppose it to carry. That might change, in time.

    Your point about computers reminds me of a line by Sydney J. Harris: “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” Sexist terminology aside, his point is both valid and moot: people have been thinking like computers for a long time; the danger lies in how prevalent and embedded this mode of thinking becomes.

    But I disagree with you about Bryan Garner. He writes well, and cares deeply, about English usage. Quite often I disagree with his conclusions, but I’m always interested in what he has to say.

  11. naïf says:

    language hat says:
    “The whole idea comes from the ridiculous notion that language exists, or should exist, only as a vehicle for logical and scientifically verifiable content. ”

    See: Strawman

  12. language hat says:

    Stan: He writes well, and cares deeply, about English usage. Quite often I disagree with his conclusions, but I’m always interested in what he has to say.

    He does write well and care deeply, but I’m rarely interested in what he has to say, because it comes from the same predictably paleolithic mindset. Of course he sometimes expresses unpredictably liberal views on one or another point; that just goes to show how arbitrary all these prescriptivists are. “I decide what’s right or wrong! If I happen to take a shine to some usage that is on its face illogical or bastardized, then it’s perfectly OK… because I said so!”

    naïf: Not a strawman unless you can provide some other explanation for the condemnation of usages because they’re “illogical.” What does “adds little or nothing to what it purports to stress” mean if not that anything other than logical and scientifically verifiable content is “little or nothing”?

  13. Allen says:

    I never get bothered by the usage, but I loved The Oatmeal’s Gayroller 2000 poster enough to buy a copy. I ended up gifting it to my boss earlier this week, soon as it arrived; he had just filed a complaint against Baylor Medical System under the city of Dallas’s sexual orientation statute–they had refused to grant family membership discounts to his partner. The poster delighted him to no end.

  14. Stan – It’s hard to believe that I could be exposed to nonliteral “literal” less often than anyone else. I’m not sure, but perhaps when I’m reading/listening casually rather than critically, I tend to interpret “literally” to mean “more literally than something else” — and so as long as I can imagine some interpretation that’s even less literal than the one that seems to be intended, that intended interpretation doesn’t register in my mind as non-literal.

    LH – You are the only person on this page to have used the word “illogical”, whereas “adds little or nothing” is quoted from Stan’s post. Presenting the two together as you do, as though they shared a single source, seems a little misleading. Also, it’s clear to me that “generally adds little or nothing” was Stan’s way of saying that writing is often more effective when intensifiers are used sparingly, which in no way resembles the claim that language should be concerned primarily with the communication of objective truth.

  15. Stan says:

    naïf: Thanks for your comment.

    LH: With some hardline prescriptivists, sure, what passes for advice can be a virtual caricature of predictable intolerance and fusty intransigence — we need not abide by it or pay it much heed. But in other cases it warrants a fair hearing. There’s no omniscient authority; how arbitrary is the advice depends in part on the degree of self-awareness of its source: we all have our blind spots, some more invisible than others.

    To be clear: I didn’t condemn non-literal literally because it was illogical. Indeed, I didn’t condemn it at all. I know well that to impose formal logic on language is a fool’s enterprise. Nor do I object to the usage. But I think it’s worth acknowledging that non-literal literally remains subject to widespread scorn, and that this is something people might want to be aware of particularly in formal contexts. Because if they’re not, they run the risk of mockery or disrepute, however fair, gentle, or otherwise.

    Allen: Thank you for the story! I like the Oatmeal poster more for its political stance than its usage advice.

    Dragon: Thanks for the explanation. I wonder if anyone has investigated the question of how literal literally is, or whether it’s even meaningfully quantifiable. Regarding your points to Language Hat about the effectiveness of intensifiers, you might (both) be interested in this paper: ‘Clearly, Using Intensifiers Is Very Bad–Or Is It?’. If you haven’t already seen it. I mentioned it in an old post, but it seems apt here.

  16. language hat says:

    To be clear: I didn’t condemn non-literal literally because it was illogical. Indeed, I didn’t condemn it at all. I know well that to impose formal logic on language is a fool’s enterprise. Nor do I object to the usage. But I think it’s worth acknowledging that non-literal literally remains subject to widespread scorn, and that this is something people might want to be aware of particularly in formal contexts. Because if they’re not, they run the risk of mockery or disrepute, however fair, gentle, or otherwise.

    And to be clear, I don’t disagree with any of that; as Flesh-eating Dragon points out, my quoting your words might seem to indicate that I was attacking you, whereas actually I was attacking a prevalent form of hardline prescriptivism that your words reminded me of. I could certainly have been clearer, and I apologize if you felt attacked (though by now I trust you are aware of my respect and affection for you and your site).

  17. Stan says:

    LH: I didn’t feel at all attacked, though I did wonder how implicated I was in your criticism! Like you, I wear many hats (and sub-hats and meta-hats, sometimes in a single post). The editor in me is not always in accord with the colloquial speaker, for example — but both often demand an airing, if possible, without excessive equivocation. Thank you for clarifying your position, and please know that your respect and affection are warmly reciprocated.

  18. [...] Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’ [...]

  19. [...] Carey on non-literal ‘literally’ (& be sure to read this, too.) Posted in Events, Recommendations. Leave a Comment [...]

  20. [...] Stan Carey recently made one of those posts he does every once in a while that makes the rest of us grammar bloggers look like sputtering nimrods. I’m assuming that a substantial number of our readers overlap, but in case you haven’t seen his post, or haven’t gotten around to reading it yet (as I hadn’t for a while), let me strongly suggest that you go check it out. [...]

  21. [...] indicate the use of exaggeration. Furthermore, as commenter “Flesh-eating Dragon” puts it, “there are degrees of literality; it is not binary.” That makes it hard to draw a line [...]

  22. [...] a lot of reasons, although the use is quite common. Stan Carey (of Sentence first, a grammar blog) has a pretty good discussion of this debate, specifically, why it isn’t necessarily a grammatical sin to say something like that. [...]

  23. Jude Sheerin says:

    Some more modern examples of literally misuse…

    “This ball literally explodes off Rooney’s foot.”
    Jamie Redknapp , Sky Sports

    You were up against the Norwegians, who are, literally, born on skis.”
    Kate Silverton, BBC

    “Rio here is literally – literally – up his backside
    Andy Townsend , ITV

    “You can literally get a world on your plate.”
    Jamie Oliver, Channel 4

    “A single parent would only be able to claim benefits for two years and after that they would literally be pushed over a cliff.”
    Guest on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme

  24. Stan says:

    Thanks for the examples, Jude. No surprise that sport features prominently: it’s a natural arena for hyperbole.

  25. [...] to the contrary gathered by the Language Log and then went on to ignore it in the conclusion: Literally centuries of non-literal ‘literally’ « Sentence first. Few would dispute that literally, used non-literally, is often superfluous. It generally adds [...]

  26. [...] literally is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses of [...]

  27. [...] is perfectly standard. This one’s a three-fer. Stan Carey,me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts, each inspired by the other, about non-literal uses [...]

  28. [...] it “the word we love to hate” (that includes at least one Wordnik); Stan Carey provided a thorough and amusing post about it; Language Log gave a historical citation of its use and misuse; and most recently, [...]

  29. [...] literally, not because it’s confusing or incomprehensible or uneducated or new — it’s not — but because it feels cheap and hyperbolic to me, especially when used regularly. But these [...]

  30. [...] Guardian article as “peever’s bingo” because it contained so many timeworn usage peeves, like literally and [...]

  31. That’s all fine, until you get to Joe Biden saying, “The banking crisis literally, not figuratively, decimated millions.”

    That word you are saying: I do not think it means what you think it means.

  32. Stefan Geens says:

    Alcott DID use “literally” in the literal sense:

    “At four o’clock a lull took place, and baskets remained empty, while the apple pickers rested and compared rents and bruises. Then Jo and Meg, with a detachment of the bigger boys, set forth the supper on the grass, for an out-of-door tea was always the crowning joy of the day. The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions, for the lads were not required to sit at table, but allowed to partake of refreshment as they liked freedom being the sauce best beloved by the boyish soul. They availed themselves of the rare privilege to the fullest extent, for some tried the pleasing experiment of drinking mild while standing on their heads, others lent a charm to leapfrog by eating pie in the pauses of the game, cookies were sown broadcast over the field, and apple turnovers roosted in the trees like a new style of bird. The little girls had a private tea party, and Ted roved among the edibles at his own sweet will.”

  33. Stan says:

    Thanks for the correction, Stefan; I’ve removed the line in question.

  34. […] Stan Carey over at Sentence first has said everything that needs to be said about the usage of the word literally. (I thought long and hard about peppering this post with literally-s but I won’t. I won’t. You […]

  35. […] the recent uproar about the change in status of ‘literally’ is a timely reminder of just how flexible the English […]

  36. […] “The usage is not some horrible new invention of the millennials, it has been around for a very long time, in the dictionary since 1903, and first used in […]

  37. […] word’s use as an “intensifier” goes back even further than modern fiction. There’s something to be said for the power “literally” has in continuing to stir up debate, […]

  38. […] of editing is keeping formal written registers free of colloquialisms. So you don’t tend to see intensive literally in formal texts unless the word itself is being discussed or it’s used ironically or in quoted […]

  39. […] words as single letters is fine in texting or very informal writing. Less for fewer isn’t wrong. Non-literal literally isn’t either (and has been used even in classic literature for literally […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,837 other followers