• synonyms


[ lit-er-uh-lee ]
/ ˈlɪt ər ə li /


in the literal or strict sense: She failed to grasp the metaphor and interpreted the poem literally. What does the word mean literally?
in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.
actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.
in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually: I literally died when she walked out on stage in that costume.




Nearby words

literal-minded, literalism, literalist, literality, literalize, literally, literary, literary agent, literary executor, literate, literately

Origin of literally

First recorded in 1525–35; literal + -ly
Can be confusedfiguratively literally virtually (see usage note at the current entry)

Usage note

Since the early 19th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. 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 same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived.

Word story

The adverb literally was formed in English by adding the adverbial suffix -ly to literal, an adjective borrowed from Late Latin litterālis “of or relating to letters or literature.” (When we say “the letter of the law,” we are referring to its literal, or most obvious, meaning that follows the actual wording of the law.)
But it is of no use to complain that literally properly means “actually; without exaggeration,” the exact opposite of figuratively. That battle is almost lost; popular usage has nearly won, so that literally may also be used to mean “in effect; very nearly; virtually.” In fact, this meaning is now quite common, with literally being used to intensify a metaphorical expression, as in “He literally died when he found out the truth.”
Another usage battle was lost well over two thousand years ago, when Cicero, the Roman Republic’s greatest orator and man of letters, in his dialogue Brutus, yielded his own older “correct” pronunciation of certain words to the more recent popular “incorrect” usage, changing his own pulcer “beautiful” to pulcher, triumpus “triumph” to triumphus, and Cartāgo “Carthage” to Carthāgo. (Notice that it is the “vulgar” spellings that are current in English pulchritude, triumph, and Carthage ). In each of the spelling changes, “c” to “ch,” “p” to “ph,” and “t” to “th,” the “h” represents aspiration of the consonant (voiceless stops in these cases). Aspirated voiceless stops were a feature of the pronunciation of the uneducated populace who aspired to but overshot the pronunciation of educated speakers. Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for literally

British Dictionary definitions for literally


/ (ˈlɪtərəlɪ) /


in a literal manner
(intensifier)there were literally thousands of people


The use of literally as an intensifier is common, esp in informal contexts. In some cases, it provides emphasis without adding to the meaning: the house was literally only five minutes walk away. Often, however, its use results in absurdity: the news was literally an eye-opener to me. It is therefore best avoided in formal contexts
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 literally



1530s, "in a literal sense," from literal + -ly (2). Erroneously used in reference to metaphors, hyperbole, etc., even by writers like Dryden and Pope, to indicate "what follows must be taken in the strongest admissible sense" (1680s), which is opposite to the word's real meaning and a long step down the path to the modern misuse of it.

We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression 'not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking', we do not hesitate to insert the very word we ought to be at pains to repudiate; ... such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible. [Fowler, 1924]
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper