See more synonyms for literal on
  1. in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.
  2. following the words of the original very closely and exactly: a literal translation of Goethe.
  3. true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.
  4. being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.
  5. (of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.
  6. of or relating to the letters of the alphabet.
  7. of the nature of letters.
  8. expressed by letters.
  9. affecting a letter or letters: a literal error.
  1. a typographical error, especially involving a single letter.

Origin of literal

1350–1400; Middle English < Late Latin litterālis “of letters.” See letter1, -al1
Related formslit·er·al·ness, nounnon·lit·er·al, adjectivenon·lit·er·al·ly, adverbnon·lit·er·al·ness, nouno·ver·lit·er·al, adjectiveun·lit·er·al, adjectiveun·lit·er·al·ly, adverb
Can be confusedliteral littoral

Synonyms for literal

See more synonyms for on Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Examples from the Web for literal

Contemporary Examples of literal

Historical Examples of literal

  • No one will claim that it is used in its literal sense of "seed," in the text.

  • This lyrical vision restores it, whole, complete, and literal.

  • This literal quotation from the frank Mr. Calvin caused a sensation.

    Cap'n Dan's Daughter

    Joseph C. Lincoln

  • His statement concerning Mrs. Black was not the literal truth.

    Cap'n Dan's Daughter

    Joseph C. Lincoln

  • And this remark, intended to be facetious, was after all pretty close to the literal truth.


    Joseph C. Lincoln

British Dictionary definitions for literal


  1. in exact accordance with or limited to the primary or explicit meaning of a word or text
  2. word for word
  3. dull, factual, or prosaic
  4. consisting of, concerning, or indicated by letters
  5. true; actual
  6. maths containing or using coefficients and constants represented by letters: ax² + b is a literal expressionCompare numerical (def. 3a)
  1. Also called: literal error a misprint or misspelling in a text
Derived Formsliteralness or literality (ˌlɪtəˈrælɪtɪ), noun

Word Origin for literal

C14: from Late Latin litterālis concerning letters, from Latin littera letter
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for literal

late 14c., "taking words in their natural meaning" (originally in reference to Scripture and opposed to mystical or allegorical), from Old French literal and directly from Late Latin literalis/litteralis "of or belonging to letters or writing," from Latin litera/littera "letter, alphabetic sign; literature, books" (see letter (n.1)). Meaning "of or pertaining to alphabetic letters" is from late 15c. Sense of "verbally exact" is attested from 1590s, as is application to the primary sense of a word or passage. Literal-minded is attested from 1791.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper