FUN FRIDAY: Literally?

So this one’s way off topic and maybe it isn’t even that fun. But so be it. There’s just something that bothers me more than it should. It’s been that way for a long time. And eventually, I knew I was bound to write about it.

Literally.

If you’re like me, every time you see that word you imagine Chris Traeger, Rob Lowe’s character from Parks and Recreation. It was the character’s defining turn of phrase. Even if you don’t, you probably use the word a lot. Most people do. Or, if you’re like me, you avoid it because it just makes you angry.

I’m one of those guys who really gets wound up when people say “literally” and they mean “not literally.” As in, “I literally died when I saw that.” No you didn’t, because you’re here right now. Oh, I’ll allow for the possibility that you did in fact die and then were resuscitated but I rather doubt it.

Where “literally” started

“Literally” originally meant that you were being literal, in other words, that one should take your words exactly as you said them. The word literally means “by the letter” and it’s similar to the phrase “by the letter of the law.” Its best use is when you’re trying to illustrate something that is usually not true or used as a metaphor. For example, if you have a tree that doesn’t get flowers until June, it is “literally” a late bloomer. Normally that phrase is used figuratively.

At some point people started using the word “literally” as sort of a general-purpose superlative. It just emphasized what you were saying. In that sense it followed the word “really” which originally meant that you were discussing something that existed, and now means that you just want the person you’re speaking with to listen closely, as in “I really need this coat.” (Chances are, you’d survive without it.)

The devil you say

And then, this happened. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, defined literally like this:

Definition of literally

1: in a literal sense or manner: such as
a : in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression He took the remark literally. a word that can be used both literally and figuratively
b —used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or description The party was attended by literally hundreds of people.
c : with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.
d : in a completely accurate way a story that is basically true even if not literally true

2: in effect : virtually —used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible

In other words, “literally” could mean, by definition “not literally.”

They claim it’s not their fault, that they follow language not create it. They made the change several years ago. Not only that they bring receipts to show that it’s been used to mean “not literally” for literally decades. But whatever. I was literally surprised when I read that. And I mean “definition 1 literally.”

I’m outvoted

Now it seems that greater voices than mine have entered the fray. This author named Steven Pinker literally (definition 1) has more credentials than I do. The article says that it’s ok to say “literally” when you mean “not literally.” It seems I’m outvoted. Even more, I have been since this article originally ran almost a decade ago.

There is one consolation, though. In the article, Pinker does say that if the use of “literally” to mean “not literally” bothers you, don’t do it. However, the article says nothing about your own reaction. It doesn’t say if it’s ok to look at someone else like they are “literally” (definition 1) suffering from sort of mental defect when they do it. I guess that’s up to me.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.