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 Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

British Dictionary definitions for non-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 non-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