David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.
In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.
Many critics say, erroneously, that literally is used to mean ‘figuratively’ and that this is terrible. But that’s not how it’s being used: rather, literally is used to intensify things, which may be (and often are) figurative. I’ll skip over that whole debate here, because I’ve already written about how literally has been used non-literally for literally centuries (and by the likes of Nabokov, Joyce, Brontë, and Dickens).
That post quotes lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower saying that because literally means something like ‘according to the letter’, when we use the word in connection with anything else – such as whole words or thoughts – ‘we are already walking down the figurative path’. Bellos expands upon this point:
‘Literal’ is an adjective formed from the noun littera, meaning ‘letter’ in Latin. A letter in this sense is a written sign that belongs to a set of signs some subsets of which can be used to communicate meanings. Speech communicates meaning, writing communicates meaning – but letters on their own do not have any meaning. That’s what a letter is – a sign that is meaningless except when used as part of a string. The expression ‘literal meaning’, taken literally, is a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron and a nonsense.
What we probably meant in the distant past when we asserted that something was ‘literally true’ in order to emphasize that it was really true, true to a higher degree than just being true, was that it was among those rare things that were worthy of being ‘put into letters’, of being written down. All the uses of ‘literal’ with respect to meaning and translation implicitly value writtenness more highly than oral speech. They are now among the surviving linguistic traces of the fantastic change in social and cultural hierarchies that the invention of writing brought about.
It’s a nice idea, and to me a credible one, that this use of literally arose to indicate that something was worth committing to script, and that the contemporary hyperbolic use is a shadow of that great cultural and technological innovation.
Words often follow a gradual path from the concrete to the abstract, hence James Geary’s line that metaphor lives a secret life all around us. In the case of literally its meaning draws more attention to the drift, especially, incongruously, when it’s used ‘improperly’ to lend stress rather than ‘properly’ to underline semantic accuracy.
But the etymology of literal shows the double standard of berating people for using literally as an intensifier instead of using it ‘literally’. Because unless you’re using it to refer specifically to letters, then you’ve already strayed from its strictly literal sense. Chances are we all have.
So the next time someone argues pedantically about the literal meaning of something, ask them what they mean, literally, when they say literal meaning.