What Does “Literally” Have To Do With “Definitely” And “Totally”?

With all the hullabaloo about the figurative sense of literally, language enthusiasts have given much thought to this often maligned term. We’ve even discussed how the metaphorical extension of literally is nothing new—it’s been around since the 1700s—but now we’d like to explore a few other adverbs and their ironic uses. I believe that recent uses of definitely and totally suggest that the linguistic development of literally is not an isolated incident, but a trend.

Where did literally come from?

In the late 1600s, literally was being used as an emphatic adverb, and the earliest known uses of the figurative literally date from the 1700s. A possible scenario: The stress put on the emphatic sense of literally soon carried over to the ironic sense, which linguists remind enraged masses, was used by the likes of Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens generations before any of us were born.

To a certain extent, definitely and totally can be seen to parallel the linguistic development of literally, from literal to emphatic to ironic. Because the ironic uses of definitely and totally are still very new, we’ll look to language innovators such as teens, twenty-somethings, and techies for some insight on the use of these terms. Let’s start with definitely.

Where did definitely come from?

On the teen-girl-geared website Rookiemag.com, one writer’s bio read as follows:

When she’s not busy writing to support her glamorous waitressing career, you can catch her tweeting, embroidering, blogging, or definitely not reading Food Network fan fiction.

In this example, the original meaning of definitely takes on ironic connotations, resulting in an opposite meaning. This author can, in fact, be caught reading Food Network fan fiction. This activity is a guilty pleasure for the author, and by playing with the sense of definitely, she jokes that she understands how strange her hobby might sound to other people. On the pop-culture site Jezebel.com, a headline reads “Definitely Legit: Someone Selling Original Monet on Craigslist for $5,000.” The author of this article ironically twists definitely to mean “utterly not”—the statement that follows “definitely legit” is most certainly not “legit.” Totally and definitely are interchangeable in the “definitely legit” construction. In an article on TechCrunch about a disposable phone-number app, the author, with a twinkle in his eye, concludes with “Now, go! Go and use this for totally legit and not at all shady purposes.”

How does totally fit in?

Another example of the ironic use of definitely can be found in our post on literally where we highlight this Jezebel headline: “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.” The “(because) X definitely need(s) another/more Y” construction also appears with the term totally standing in for definitely. We can see this pattern emerge in product review on Venture Beat headlined “Because we totally need a sensor in our shoe that talks to our phone to tell us to buy new shoes.” The highly snarky article proceeds to make fun of the patent claims of this technology.

Today, definitely and totally are increasingly being used in ironic contexts, echoing the development of the metaphoric literally. While the public eye might be focusing on literally, perhaps that old news should be dropped in favor of analysis of these largely unexplored uses of definitely and totally.


Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, CA. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for Dictionary.com. In the past, she’s worked with other dictionary publishers including Cambridge, HarperCollins, Oxford, and Scholastic, and she was a coauthor of “Among the New Words,” a quarterly article in the journal American Speech. She is also part of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. Jane blogs at Lexical Items, and she is the author of the children’s book The Dictionary of Difficult Words.

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