In Defense of the Figurative Use of Literally

Charles Dickens

By Rebekah OttoRecently the wordsmiths of the United States have availed themselves once again to decry the figurative use of the word literally. This particular spate of analysis finds its origins in a Reddit post titled, “We did it guys, we finally killed English,” which featured an image of Google’s definition for the word. Since that popular post, journalists and language experts have added their voices to the loudening din.

The Reddit poster puts the blame for killing English on all of us, the living, but in the wake of public outrage, language experts have pointed out that this sense of literally is nothing new.

The history of literally

Let’s trace the history of this meandering adverb. The word literally originally meant “related to letters” as in this passage from 1689: “and in the Hebrew the words are literally, The King of Moab, the first.” Around the same time, the word began to be used interchangeably with “actually.” In 1698, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards remarked, “then these things which he affirmed of himself were not literally true, but only figuratively.” By 1839, when Charles Dickens (pictured) wrote  Nicholas Nickleby, the figurative sense (the sense that the reading public is up in arms about today) was embedded in the language: “his looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone…”

Meaning inversion in words is not uncommon. Widespread usage of the word bad to mean “outstandingly excellent; first-rate” is one such example. More recently, the word definitely has begun fluctuating in meaning. Jezebel published an article in June entitled, “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.” No dictionary has yet recorded this sense, and no one seems incensed about this linguistic twist. Definitely seems to now be undergoing a shift in meaning and becoming an intensifier in an ironic context, echoing the much disputed linguistic development of literally. (Perhaps people are waiting for dictionaries to make this figurative sense of definitely “official” before they once again pronounce the English language dead.)

The figurative literally

So why do people hate the figurative literally so much?

As Ben Zimmer noted, “One reason that literally gets singled out for special criticism is that we all learn in school the difference between literal and figurative meaning. So it grates on the ear when a figurative turn of speech is given the ‘literal’ treatment.”

This debate probably recurs because it is excessively accessible. It’s an easy editorial peeve to have because a) it’s ubiquitous and b) it’s a straightforward contradiction. At Gizmodo, Casey Chan tells us, “I’m totally guilty of using literally like this make believe secondary definition too.” In the same sentence, he calls something “make believe” and acknowledges that it’s real. The figurative use of literally is not a unicorn; it’s a horse. The contradiction of literally is easy to explain to a large audience, easier than why dictionary editors hem and haw over the use of the word “etc.” or how adverbial phrases are punctuated. This type of simplistic gripe satisfies the need to feel smarter than someone else without thinking too deeply about how language operates. This figurative use has been around for a while, and it’s not going anywhere, so let’s start having a different conversation about it.

Literally intensifies

Not only does the figurative use of the word literally not bother me a pinch, I must confess that I actually like it, or at least I like its impact. I’d argue that when juxtaposed with seemingly outrageous but accurate statements, the original meaning becomes more effective exactly because it can also mean “figuratively,” and a listener must pause to determine which meaning the speaker intends. A guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace, discussing a business agreement with a real and actual $1,000,000,000 price tag said: “That is literally the billion-dollar question.” In this way, literally is a more effective intensifier than reallyactually, or absolutely. Today does the intensifying sense pack more of a punch because of the widespread figurative use?

What do you think about the uses of the word literally? Do you use it figuratively? Literally? As an intensifier?

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