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. 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.
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)
At this time of day, the Gravediggers [pub] is literally the capital of Hell, the city of Satan and his acolytes, the city built by fallen angels. (Enrique Vila-Matas, Dublinesque, tr. Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean)
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 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.
On Wordnik, literally 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.” 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 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)
. . . at moments of utter ignominy and when my heart was literally breaking – at all these times I was invariably helped by the demand that I had made on myself (Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, tr. Martin Brady)
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. 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, 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.
‘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, totally, really, 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)
He took the blows at him straight on to get in close and I saw his knee surge up and into the man’s groin. A high scream was literally torn from the man and he collapsed to the floor and dragged himself toward the doors. (Jack Schaefer, Shane)
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.
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 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.