Which “literally” Do You Mean?

background image 459

You may have missed all the fuss when the media discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary has added an entry for the figurative use of literally.

Among the wails of outrage and dismay was this from a Reddit user: “We did it guys, we finally killed English.”

Here’s the offending OED entry:

literally: colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.

Anguished cries of indignation are still echoing across the web. Apparently a lot of commenters imagine that adding a word to a dictionary reflects an automatic endorsement.

Dictionaries record words that people say. The entry that raised such a stir in August 2013 was actually added in September 2011. My copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary—the one you read with the accompanying rectangular magnifying glass—doesn’t have a separate entry, but it does note this use of literally and gives an example from 1863. The new OED entry includes an example from 1769.

Like it or not, in the 21st century, literally is widely used as a mindless intensifier. Just browse the web:

The news literally knocked my socks off!

Every time I cleanse, I can literally feel the toxins leaving my body!

George Clooney Is The Best Part Of “Gravity” Because He Is Literally Real-Life Buzz Lightyear

Kelly Clarkson: “I literally dropped 18 pounds in a month”

He’s literally left Ben Haim for dead there.”

Poor old OED. If they label a word “nonstandard, “or “vulgar,” they’re castigated for being prescriptive. If they give space to a new twist on an old word, they’re accused of opening the door to the destruction of the English language.

Just because a word is “in the dictionary” doesn’t compel us to use it in our own writing or speech. The OED has an entry for irregardless, but only the most uninformed English speaker would use the word in a serious context.

The “new” definition of literally doesn’t come without a caveat:

Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

Attempting to control the way other people use language is futile. So is getting upset when they don’t use words the way you want them to.

Literally is one of those words like crazy, awesome, and wicked that are overused in inappropriate contexts by speakers unaccustomed to thinking about the meaning of words. Annoying? Yes. Destroying the language? Probably not.

For my part, I intend to continue using the word wicked to mean “evil or morally wrong,” although I won’t have any difficulty understanding a Facebook comment that says, “My mother makes wicked pies.”

As for using literally to intensify a metaphor, I don’t plan to do it myself, but I always enjoy the terrific images some of them conjure up, like this one:

“That’s literally opening a team up and putting them to the sword” – Niall Quinn

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

23 thoughts on “Which “literally” Do You Mean?”

  1. In literally all of the examples here of “literally” used to mean “figuratively,” you could take the word “literally” out and not lose anything. It is a meaningless, needless word, and we must “Omit Needless Words.”

  2. Loved your post, Maeve.

    Being as I am a linguist (certified translator) of English, and while not actively endorsing the figurative use of ‘literally’, I cannot say it ruffles my feathers in any significant way. I cannot be absolutely [‘literally’, LOL] sure, but I may have used it in that sense more than once in ordinary speech or informal writing, without feeling that I was committing any major linguistic infringement. The more so, as in Spanish (my native and everyday language) it is also used as an intensifier.

    When used in that sense, i.e., as an intensifier, I find that it somehow has shifted its ‘literal’ meaning of ‘literal’ [redundance intended] to mean something else, and that is how neologisms are born – not always a completely new word, but a new meaning for an old or existing word; that is also a neologism.
    As you have correctly stated, dictionaries don’t sanction or endorse, they mostly record usage and issue pointers as to the standard, grammatical use of words.

    Now, regarding ‘irregardless’, you have touched a raw nerve there. It is really a pet peeve of mine. What makes it worse, I have seen it used in professional blog posts of colleagues, which were otherwise faultlessly written, but the use of that sole word (repeated more than once throughout the post) was enough to subtract value, to my mind, from the whole post. The inappropriate use stems maybe from a confusion between ‘irrespective’ and ‘regardless’, but I find that such confusion in a member of our profession is – to say the least – unpardonable.

  3. There is a big difference between the slang use of “wicked” and the like, and the misuse of “literally.” (Maybe you caught the gist in the way I phrased that?)

    It is not uncommon to think of something as so good, it must be bad. Like ‘sinfully delicious’ or ‘devilishly good’. ‘Wicked’ is merely another example of this use of this device. Someone thought it was colorful, and it caught on. Changes that make the language MORE colorful and expressive are great.

    The MISuse of ‘literally’ is simply ignorance. Ignorance should be corrected, not endorsed. It may not destroy the language, but does dilute it. It CERTAINLY does nothing to improve it. Changes that dilute and weaken the language out of sheer ignorance are bad and should be resisted. Another example — a long standing pet peeve of mine — is the use of ‘unique’ to mean ‘unusual’. We used to have a clear, effective unambiguous word t mean ‘one of a kind.’ Now, thanks to ignorance, we just have yet another weak, undifferentiated synonym for ‘unusual.’

    But how to convince anyone? If muddling through to barely get a meaning across is all that matters, why should anyone care? Why have a blog like this? Why study English? I’d love to see a DWT on that topic.


  4. “literally is widely used as a mindless intensifier.”

    This brings to mind other MINDLESS intensifiers:
    In vulgar American English: f***ing, and
    in the English of the Commonwealth: “bloody”.

    I once had a student from the Commonwealth (one of the Caribbean islands) in one of my classes, and the occasion arose when I needed to explain to all of them what “NBG” means. I had marked a lot of their assignments with NBG because they were so poor, and I was telling them that they needed to shape up! My student from the Caribbean raised his hand and he announced “Now I know what NFG means!”

    In American English, “I saw the bloody scene of the accident and I was horrified” means exactly what it says. I presume that this is also true in Canadian English.

  5. The people who misuse literally are literally the stupidest people on the web, and we rewarded their stupidity by just changing the word to what they thought it meant.

    By stupid obviously I mean brilliant. I’m taking their lead and using antonyms for nothing later!

    Next up: doesn’t matter which “your”, “there” or “too” you use. All homonyms are interchangeable now because they get funked up too often.

  6. I agree with ApK about the use of “wicked” and the like. My daughter, who is 21 and has that Gen Y mindset and vocabulary, comes up with words and phrases that make me scratch my head (um, not literally). For example, I told her I had just earned $100 for writing a little article, and she said, “That’s sick.” So I had to ask if “sick” was good or bad. Apparently it was good…at least on that occasion. Good is good, but bad is better. Being cool is good, but maybe being hot is better. I literally mean all this figuratively, and I hope my post is somewhat unique [sic] 😉

  7. The use of “irregardless” instead of “regardless” doesn’t bother me in casual or social speech. “Irregardless” only means one thing: “regardless.”

    I am much more concerned about the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” When a word is used in two ways, in this case with opposite meanings, clarity suffers. When clarity suffers, communication fails.

    If Bob says, “This headache is literally making my head explode,” does he have an aggressive tumor and need immediate medical attention, or does he need an aspirin? Answer unknown.

    If I say, “Bob was literally brain dead this weekend,” was Bob a dull companion or was he in a coma? Answer unknown.

    If my uncle Bob was literally crazy, was he in an institution or did he do silly things to make us laugh? Answer unknown.

    Sure, I could guess at the meaning for each statement, based on the context or the improbability of one choice compared to the other, but I would be guessing, and guessing is prone to error. This may be acceptable in casual speech, but it is not acceptable to me in formal writing because it reduces clarity and leads to miscommunication.

    If we do accept “literally” to mean “figuratively,” what does this mean: “You can’t take the Bible literally”?

    In my opinion: Frequent usage is not a sufficient justification for changing a word’s meaning.

  8. Literally is one of those words like crazy, awesome, and wicked that are overused in inappropriate contexts by speakers unaccustomed to thinking about the meaning of words.
    OK. Then it is still only acceptable as colloquial or slang. Just like those others. In formal writing you would not (we hope) say your schedule is crazy, or our dinner was awesome. As far as literally meaning in reality or actually or, cutting to the bone, meaning NOT figuratively, you have a bigger issue because it then means the opposite of what is intended. Crazy doesn’t mean sane, rational, or not crazy. Awesome does not mean terrible, mundane, or sub-par. So in that way it is like bad meaning good or wicked meaning good. Or, irregardless meaning regardless if, for some mysterious reason, you are inclined to excuse that monstrosity. But a couple of the examples seem to miss:

    Kelly Clarkson: “I literally dropped 18 pounds in a month” If she did, indeed, shed 18 lbs in a month wouldn’t that be the proper use of literally?

    Every time I cleanse, I can literally feel the toxins leaving my body! Perhaps that, too (though, granted, improbable).

    I have to agree that neologisms born of ignorance a/o stupidity, as opposed to need, are simply inexcusable from any writer expecting to be taken seriously.

  9. This is, “literally”, even more disturbing than the mistake itself:

    ”Poor old OED. If they label a word “nonstandard, “or “vulgar,” they’re castigated for being prescriptive.”

    By whom? Who castigates them for being prescriptive and so what if they do? What so many dictionaries should be castigated for is spinlessness and unwillingness to stand on anything. People do consult references for some authoritativeness. We already know what “people say”. Why do we need a dictionary if all it does is catalog mistakes along with accuracy? Do people “say” nucular, and supposably? Yes, they do. Do people spell as seperately and restaraunt, and tuks sedo? Yes. Do they think crapulent means full of that, or that noisome means loud? Yes. So why don’t we just accept those as well? The dictionary serves no purpose at all.

  10. Other words that “are overused in inappropriate contexts by speakers unaccustomed to thinking about the meaning of words” would include “visually” and “physically” in the business world.

    For instance: He “physically/visually checked [insert object] before confirming…”

    Your advice on not “getting upset when they don’t use words the way you want them to” is well taken. Thank you.

  11. Confucius:
    “If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

  12. I love receiving my daily writing tips : )
    But not “literally” obviously (?) and very much enjoy reading the comments from other, sometimes rather perturbed, subscribers.

    Thank you for adding the Confucius quote Preciseedit: I plan to print it out and pin it to the noticeboard at Uni!

    My opinion is that language evolves and dictionaries catalogue words.
    Language doesn’t evolve because a dictionary has entered a new variant to the list of meanings a word may have: the opposite happens! The dictionary only changes an entry when common usage becomes so “common” that the meaning must be listed. In a hundred years time the English language will have some new words, whilst some old words will have been forgotten. Our dictionaries (whatever form they may take) will, or should still (I hope) be the places we can trace a words origins, lineage and cultural heritage: their etymology.

    The “niggle” is that of usage isn’t it? In formal writing a word such a literally should only be used in its “proper” sense (what would be the reason for slipping colloquialisms into formal writing?). Maybe the question to ask is, when is writing considered formal?

    As for “irregardless” I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard or seen this word! It can’t be idiomatic, so is it oxymoronic? Oxymorons are always at least two words aren’t they: noticeably absent, or Microsoft Works, for example. Can one word be oxymoronic? And oxymorons are usually clever enough to make us stop and think (or chuckle), whereas “irregardless” is inexcusable and pitiable!

  13. “Awesome does not mean terrible, mundane, or sub-par.”

    Once upon a time terrible didn’t mean terrible either.

  14. @JJM: I have no idea what your point is. My point was that regardless of what awesome meant or means, it did not and does not mean “not awesome”. Insert any synonyms for awesome you like.

  15. “Your advice on not “getting upset when they don’t use words the way you want them to” is well taken.”

    If the issue at hand is only what you “want” the word to mean, I guess that’s true. But using irregardless or using literally to mean something other than literally is not simply a matter of what “you” or I want. It is not simply our druthers that are being offended. It is the proper rules of the language. There really are such things.

  16. Reminds me of a line from Who Framed Roger Rabbit:

    “Someone got the drop on us — literally.”

    The bad guy dropped a piano on the main character and his brother. The main character got out.

  17. “It is the proper rules of the language. There really are such things.”
    Really? Who’s rules? By what authority? What binds anyone to acknowledge or obey?
    I’d like to heat people’s answers because I get asked this by a lot of people who use “me and him” as a subject, and I’ve no compelling answer for them. It usually comes down to “you sound like an idiot” and that is not always effectively compelling.

  18. “It is the proper rules of the language. There really are such things.”
    Really? Who’s rules? By what authority? What binds anyone to acknowledge or obey?Standardized spelling, grammar, punctuation AND pronunciation are collectively determined by professional and/or learned users of the language. That isn’t Joe the Plumber. Plumbers determine other things. English is really a collective convention that is overseen by scholars. Like many things. As for who enforces the rules? Who enforces “don’t fart in the elevator”? No one really, but social approbation. Use English badly and people who know better will not think well of you. The rules are self-enforcing so long as proper users maintain a united front. So, if you say hyperbowl, we know you are either illiterate, a rube, or both. We know we don’t want you speaking or writing for us.

  19. “It usually comes down to “you sound like an idiot” and that is not always effectively compelling.”

    BTW– the above is true and THAT is the problem. It will continue to get worse as long as people who DO know better keep excusing slovenly and sub-standard speech as “language evolution” and rewarding people who sound like idiots. It is safe to say that most people who sound like idiots don’t just SOUND like idiots. We shouldn’t be afraid to recognize that in our overly-egalitarian, non-judgmental environment. The rules of proper usage are not arcane or elitist. They are readily available to anyone who cares to learn them.

  20. Before I start, I am not an authority in any way, and my post is more question than statement!

    “Terrific” and “awesome” – I was told that these once meant “inspiring terror” and “inspiring awe” (the latter still being almost relevant as “awe” is now used more in the “wonder and awe” sense than the “fear” sense). While being a very good thing is not exactly the opposite of being something that makes you very afraid, it is an example where people accept that the meaning of a word has come to be something so different as to be almost opposite.

    While I disagree with “literally” being used in contexts that are anything but literal, I wonder if the word has undertaken the same kind of sense-shift that “truly” has. “Truly” no longer just indicates the truth value of a statement, but it places an emphasis on how true it is. In this case, it isn’t a reversal of meaning, but a widening of meaning. I understand that “truly” in its original context doesn’t have the same meaning as “literally” in its original context, however I can see a similarity in using a word regarding “truth of meaning” changing to include a version that means an “emphasis of meaning”.

Leave a Comment