Elizabeth East

What’s the problem with ‘literally’?

What's the problem with 'literally'?
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How does the word 'literally' make you feel? For a lot of language-lovers, the answer will be somewhere between mildly irritated and fist-gnawingly furious. It’s the misuse of the word that most perturbs. It has a habit of lurking where it has no place to be, taking a perfectly acceptable (if conventional) metaphor and turning into nonsense. Metaphors are figurative, for heaven’s sake, say its detractors.

If that’s how you feel, you’re far from alone. We all have our stylistic preferences, so I’m not going try to convert you to the ‘literally’ cause. But I do wonder why this particular word used in this way gets so many people so angry.

It can’t be because it’s new. The OED gives examples of the non-literal ‘literally’ going back to 1769. My personal favourite comes from 1801, where some unfortunate man is described as ‘literally…made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees’ (marechal powder being a sort of eighteenth-century hair powder). Although newer instances abound (Jamie Redknapp describing Wayne Rooney as ‘literally on fire’ springs happily to mind, as does Prince Edward talking about George VI being ‘literally catapulted onto the throne’), there’s no shortage of older examples.

Well, you might reply, even Georgians got things wrong sometimes. A long-standing mistake is still a mistake.

A fair point. In fact, the meaning of ‘literally’ has been in flux for centuries, following the same path as words like ‘really’ and ‘very’. These all began as ways to attest to the truth of something. ‘Really’ comes to us from the Anglo-Norman ‘real’, meaning actual or concrete (as in ‘reality’- what’s actually there). ‘Very” comes from Anglo-Normal ‘verrai’- ‘true’ (think of modern French ‘vrai’). We occasionally still use it in this sense in expressions such as ‘the very likeness’ or ‘the very same’. Yet both ‘really’ and ‘very’ are now often used as intensifiers which emphasise the extent of something, not its veracity: Land’s End is not just a long way from John O’Groats, it’s a very long way. If I describe the coronavirus pandemic as really serious, do I mean it’s genuinely serious or that it’s extremely serious? It could be either.

But, you might reply, ‘literally’ is a special case. If it were just an intensifier like “really’ or ‘very’, we’d find people using it to emphasise all sorts of things: ‘This book is literally interesting’. We don’t. The misuse occurs when people say things which aren’t literally true: ‘This book will literally blow your mind’ (metaphor) or “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you literally a thousand times’ (hyperbole). It’s self-contradictory. (Of course, we can also use ‘literally’ literally, where something is true that might be unexpected or doubtful: ‘This is literally the most interesting book I’ve ever read’ or ‘I’m literally a Communist,’ for example.)

Again, a fair point, and the OED recognises this. The first definition it gives for ‘literally’ is the one you’d expect:

Literally: In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.

Then, in 2011, it added the following definition:

Literally: Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’.

And then in a note it adds that this use 'reverses the original sense of literally'. Although it concedes, somewhat wryly, that this linguistic quirk is 'often considered irregular'. That's perhaps putting it mildly.

So, we have two definitions of ‘literally’ which are completely contradictory: one which is ‘in a literal, exact or actual sense’ (applied to things which are literally true) and another which is ‘virtually, as good as’ (applied to metaphor and hyperbole). The question is, does this matter? After all, plenty of words are their own antonym. There’s even a term for this, a ‘Janus word’ (after the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and gates). Like Janus, these words look in two directions at once. ‘Cleave’ can refer to things being split apart or joining together. Something sanctioned is either permitted or penalised, while when we ‘overlook’ something we either supervise it or forget it entirely. Does ‘dusting’ refer to removing dust from something or applying dust to it? It rather depends on whether you’re dusting shelves or cakes.

Well, you might counter, exasperated, that sounds a bit confusing. But in practice it isn’t. Even the most ardent ‘literally’-stickler will struggle to come up with examples of genuine misunderstanding or confusion caused by the supposed misuse. Non-literal ‘literally’ has been with us for years, it’s a useful intensifier and, despite being a Janus word, creates very little risk of confusion. That said, if we ever relax about it, I’ll eat my hat. Literally.

Written byElizabeth East

Elizabeth East is a writer, lawyer and PhD student of linguistics.

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