Blast from the Past: Literally

The Daily Post is on hiatus this week, so we’ll be highlighting great posts from the archives that you might have missed the first time around (never fear — there’ll still be a new Photo Challenge on Friday!). 

Today, grammar guru Daryl explains how “literally” literally came to mean its opposite — and why that’s okay:

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 could 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. The word is so overused that I literally cringe every time I hear it. For most people that use it it is just verbal filler that adds emphasis to what comes next.


  2. That is the wonderful thing about the English language – the way it changes to accept modern usage. It would be odd if we all still spoke like Shakespeare, and he was a master at adding words to the language. I like new words popping in and old ones changing or being scrapped . Art thou weary of he who doth protest so?

    Small typo by the way – Although [an edition of Webster’s dictionary] acknowledged that literally *coud* be used to mean …..


  3. The only use I ever had for the word was for doing impressions of a friend at uni, who has a very thick Leamington Spa accent. It was invariably partnered with ‘chorizo’, as in “I literally had so much chorizo”.


  4. I don’t like the word Duh. Literally I can deal with. I don’t appreciate the word illiterate. I can accept the word dumb or stupid. I don’t like the word blah blah blah.