In Defense of the Figurative Use of Literally

Charles Dickens

Recently 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.

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.)

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.

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?


  1. Johnd168 -  October 17, 2016 - 4:05 pm

    Thank you for some other informative website. Where else may just I am getting that kind of info written in such an ideal means? I’ve a venture that I am just now working on, and I have been on the glance out for such info. gedfkgefdafd

  2. Artsygirl -  October 13, 2016 - 8:00 am

    *jumps away*

    If you get that reference, comment Mattory.
    Have a nice life.

  3. Mike James -  October 9, 2016 - 4:18 pm

    THis is nothing but what happnd to “TOTALLY” in th 1980s.
    Totally awsom is now litrally awsom.
    And my kyboar no longr typ th lttr , that follows D.

  4. Slothcat -  July 27, 2016 - 11:16 am

    There is always a simple way to defend such a thing. Most obvious would be “I am a radical sociopath”.

  5. pbmaise -  August 27, 2015 - 4:13 pm

    Something is…
    or something isn’t…
    Now examine:
    literally irreplaceable

    The sheer breadth of his achievements makes him literally irreplaceable.

    The 2000 year old temple destroyed by ISIS was literally irreplaceable.

    One can argue another human could have performed the same job just as well or even better. Hence that use found in the Telegraph was wrong.

    However, how can you replace something built 2000 years ago? Hence that use, which sparked my interest, was just plain silly.

    Which is literally the point of many here, when using the term on an object as an adjective, either it is incorrect or silly.

  6. albert cox -  December 24, 2014 - 7:51 am

    I really don’t know what the literal meaning of literally is

    • Grace M. -  December 4, 2016 - 4:06 pm

      Oh! I know! We just went over this in English class. The word “literal” comes from the Latin root “Littera” which means “letter”. Therefore, literal has 3 definitions:
      1) In accordance with the explicit or primary meaning of a word or phrase, not its metaphorical meaning
      2) Word for word; verbatim
      3) Concerned mainly with facts; unimaginative
      Keep in mind that literal serves as an adjective referring to parts of speech.

      Now based off of this, the word “literally” is an adverb which expresses the term “literal” as such.
      She literally poured her blood, sweat, and tears into writing this novel, which is evidenced by the dark crimson stains and wrinkles where drops of the liquids met the parchment long ago.

      I hope this helps you :)

  7. Aaron -  November 18, 2014 - 7:07 am

    A “figurative” sun, would be a picture of the sun.
    A “literal” sun would be any word meaning sun.
    The “actual” sun is the sun.

  8. C. S. Price -  October 4, 2014 - 6:12 am

    why not simply say, “That is the billion dollar question.”? wouldn’t that suffice?

  9. Rod -  September 26, 2014 - 8:20 am

    Using literally as an intensifier is the epitome of laziness. I say this usage is incredibly bad form. Our English language is so incredibly rich with so many words from which to choose. Show some creativity and you just might grow a few more brain cells.

    • Janus -  October 22, 2014 - 10:27 pm

      # “English language is so incredibly rich”
      No, it’s very credibly rich.

    • Slim -  April 24, 2016 - 1:04 pm

      Also, really creative use of the same intensifier in two consecutive sentences. And people who have such strong opinions about the way others use language are the epitome tedium. Get a life.

    • Literati -  September 26, 2014 - 6:59 am

      Literally can’t be turned to figuratively – it’s the same as turning a Wendy’s customer into a five star chef. No. No. May I emphasize this … NO. Figuratively exists for most everything we encounter. Literally is saved, cherry picked, when needed to explain the less than obvious. We need these qualifiers to make things stand apart. What’s happening is that everyone needs the dramatic expression to tell this selfie world that I matter, I’m in italics — dammit — and thus, literally is now the underscore of our language even though it’s not so at all. We’ve lost the word. Literally is lost. Thanks to the idiots who want to scream all that they think and feel with words they hardly grasp, literally is now their teddy bear and lost to the rest.

    • john -  September 26, 2014 - 8:21 am

      I think the author(s) should have written “decry,” not “descry.” Nor do I agree that use by a famous and prestigious writer justifies any particular usage. Usage and correctness change over time, and what was once acceptable may not be so now. Furthermore, even great writers are fallible human beings, and make mistakes like the rest of us. One of the best examples was F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose MSS were riddled with mistakes in spelling and grammar, and had to be corrected extensively by his editor, Max Perkins.

      • Men -  October 25, 2014 - 11:14 am

        “Usage and correctness change over time,”

        Literally once only meant something similar to actually, but it is now being commonly used otherwise. Sure, now literally has another definition, but it still has the same previous one! If you prefer to use, “figuratively,” rather than, “literally,” than do as you please, but others care little of the change.

  10. Bedrich -  March 15, 2014 - 10:28 pm

    The sentence would be better without really, actually or absolutely, or literally.

    Simply, the best statement would be:
    “That is, the billion-dollar question.”

    • nana -  July 16, 2014 - 6:57 pm

      I have to disagree. In this instance, the use of “literally” literally made me laugh out loud.

    • Skipper -  April 24, 2016 - 1:19 pm

      Gawd, you’re dull aren’t you? The sentence loses all its charm without the “literally” and may even become confusing depending on the context. It just hits the ear wrong. You must be an English teacher.

  11. Couloir Hanson -  November 25, 2013 - 3:34 pm

    But then, once again, if you take the Charles Dickens example, who is to say that his limbs and body were worn to the bone. We are imaginative people, and CD was entitled to artistic, novellic (this should be a word, and I should know a word for this concept) license. In the last example, in letters (or numbers, it is still the same sense) it was a million dollars, which means that under both definition it should be allowed.

  12. Couloir Hanson -  November 25, 2013 - 3:33 pm

    This way of looking at the problem is funny, but if you want to write back some long-winded message of which I probably can guess what the contents, please don’t. Do the world a favor and don’t. Everything that everyone has ever written is literal, since it is related to letters, and therefore, whenever someone says, literally, they are unconsciously saying that they are writing with letters (no-brainer). Therefore, the whole argument should be forgotten right now.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:49 am

      Is using an archaic or obsolete meaning of a word a literally sensible thing to do?

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:36 am

      It is sad that so many of the comments here are literally garbage. You couldn’t get clearer examples of the fact that those who know least about a subject are the most dogmatic about it. Like all ignorant complaints about language the pother about ‘literally’ will be forgotten in a year or two.

      • Some guy -  April 8, 2015 - 8:10 am

        Well, according to you all, the figurative use of literally is supposed to be a representation of creativity. So, in other words, you need a word to tell yourself that you’re creative.
        Not only that, but the more modern use of literally means to actually do something. Maybe you should get out of the past.

    • PamelaMichele -  July 19, 2015 - 9:46 pm

      Yes, it’s a few years late, but I just had to thank you for the link to the blog site and post! Love it!! I was literally laughing out loud while reading the post on my front porch, even my neighbor joined in.

  13. determined to have the last word, Newbie spouted this -  October 4, 2013 - 8:26 am

    I wish people would quit saying change, change, kenya spur sum change? A need for flexibility doesn’t automatically validate slop.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:50 am

      Yeah, yeah, but, to conservatives, all change is slop.

  14. violette -  September 25, 2013 - 7:09 pm

    the day that language stops growing; changing; twisting; morphing (see: living, breathing) – this will be the day that any and every language shall die.

  15. Brian -  September 14, 2013 - 4:14 pm

    Are we in a race to the bottom? Do we simplify spellings and change or invert meanings to satisfy the lowest common denominator?

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:15 am

      “We” don’t do anything, the language looks after itself. Trust me on this. ;-)

  16. Newbie -  September 11, 2013 - 4:04 pm

    davea0511: substituting the wrong word in its place, not it’s. kthxbai

  17. davea0511 -  September 9, 2013 - 6:41 am

    Ryan – I didn’t get from the authors arguments that he was “in favor of the incorrect usage of ‘literally’”. But then, perhaps you meant some inverted meaning of the word ‘favor’. Then your comment would have made sense.

    Douglas -The author did touch upon using the world “literally” in a sarcastic way when he asked if you used the word as an ‘intensifier’ (though I would have prefered the term: “potentiator” rather than “intensifier”, given my scientific bent). However, to me using the term this way simply fails. I think a far better word to indicate and emphasize the sarcasm of a statement is the term “practically”. If a perfectly suitable, not to mention, more accurate term exists for what you want to say, substituting the wrong word in it’s place seems either just lazy or the figment of a stubborn refusal to admit you’re wrong, and not “practically wrong”, but “literally wrong”.

    - Dave

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 22, 2015 - 11:20 am

      Dave – You must not have read the article. The author is very clearly in favor of the incorrect usage of “literally.” And yes, I am using the correct meaning of the word “favor.” My comment made perfect sense. Your comment, however, is indefensibly illogical. Next time, try making an argument instead of empty proclamations.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:45 pm

      Dave, you must not have read the article very carefully then. The author is indeed “in favor” of the incorrect usage of literally. My meaning of the word “favor” is not inverted; it’s accurate. My comment makes complete sense, and it’s your own fault for failing to comprehend it.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:47 pm

      Dave, you must not have read the article, then. The author is indeed “in favor” of the incorrect usage of literally. I did not invert the meaning of “in favor,” as you said, either. My comment makes sense as it stands. What did you miss? Did you read the article? It appears you did not.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 3:09 pm

      Dave, that is exactly what the author expressed in the article. I am using a completely valid version of the word “favor.” The author favors the incorrect usage of the word. What do you not understand about that?

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 3:13 pm

      Dave, you must not have read the article, then. The author is very clearly in favor of the incorrect usage of the word. My reference to the word “favor” is completely accurate. I don’t know what it is you don’t understand. Maybe you should re-read the article.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 5:06 pm

      Dave, my use of “favor” was accurate. If you didn’t get that the author is in favor of the incorrect usage, then you didn’t read the article. My comment made perfect sense; you are the one who seems to be confused.

    • Ryan H. -  May 26, 2015 - 10:39 am

      Dave, if you didn’t get that the author is in favor of the incorrect usage, then you must not have read the article very carefully. The author clearly favors the incorrect usage. And yes, I am using the word ‘favor’ accurately.

  18. Harvey Wachtel -  September 9, 2013 - 6:26 am

    There seems to be some confusion between “using ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’” and “using ‘literally’ figuratively”. The usages cited illustrate the latter, but the article and its introduction claim it’s the former.

    I don’t see why there should be controversy about using any word figuratively. Figurative usage is a standard part of language and an important way in which languages develop. There may be a touch of irony in this particular usage, but hardly of illiteracy.

    • Matthew -  May 31, 2014 - 5:02 am

      The problem is actually that people use literally from a stand point of trying to express how real something is to them. Maybe you should focus less on grammar and try to understand someone and you’ll get somwhere.

  19. rampartwatcher -  September 7, 2013 - 1:20 pm

    IMHO, the misuse of “literally” is mostly indicative of the speaker’s relative ignorance of letters; just another useless (if more noisome) verbal intensifier in the sea of emotive static in which vernacular communication nearly drowns. The reports of the English language’s death are probably a tad premature, I’m sure. However, given the muddled reasoning of this pseudo-linguist at Dictionary.com and other contributors to American culture’s concerted dumbing-down, making this type of idiocy normative seems symptomatic of the post-ironic era we’re in where all useful meaning is subject to being LITERALLY negated.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:45 am

      Hey! You missed a reference to lowest common denominators in your pseudo-intellectual rant. Sure, it is only in America that literally is used figuratively and it’s a completely new phenomena. What do you mean about the reports of the language’s demise being premature? Don’t you know that all linguists would take the view this one does — it’s the end, for sure. We are doomed.We are just letting people use words as they will, regardless of the true meanings of the words: it’s linguistic anarchy, and within a few years we’ll all be back to communicating in points and grunts. In fact, at my local pub, there are already people who are restricted to just that (their soul means of communicating is by pointing and grunting).

  20. Oliver Pereira -  September 7, 2013 - 9:31 am

    Most people commenting here are still not engaging their brains. There are as many ways of using language as there are communities of human beings. It is as absurd to think that the way of speaking that you personally grew up with is the “correct” one as it is to think that the way that people in your community dresses is the “correct” way of dressing, or that your hairstyle is the “correct” hairstyle.

    Definitions of words are entirely arbitrary. That’s why there are 6,000 languages in the world, and why there have been countless thousands more during the vast history and prehistory of humanity. This multitude of languages did not arise in an instant from some Tower-of-Babel-style incident, but is simply the natural result of the expansion of humanity across the globe, the emergence of divisions between communities, and the constant, never-ending process of linguistic change.

    If there was such a thing as “correct” language, then there would only be one single, solitary language in the whole world. It is only because language always changes that there are such extreme differences between, say, English and Japanese.

    There is nothing special or unique or “correct” about the language that you personally grew up with. If you had grown up in a different century or in a different country, you would have grown up with a different way of speaking, and if you were as narrow-minded as you are now, you would think that *that* way of speaking was the “correct” one, and that *this* way of speaking was “incorrect”. Can’t you see how this renders your position incoherent?

    • JJ -  July 26, 2014 - 8:45 am

      Finally someone understands.

  21. Ryan Hillerson -  September 6, 2013 - 1:44 pm

    What a poorly written and poorly thought-out article. The author’s arguments in favor of the incorrect usage of “literally” are astoundingly weak.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:46 am

      What a literally stupid comment.

      • anthony -  April 1, 2015 - 2:34 pm


        • Ryan Hillerson -  May 22, 2015 - 11:21 am

          Anthony, your comment is literally redundant.

      • Ryan Hillerson -  May 22, 2015 - 10:40 am

        Bob, you twit, my comment is not “stupid” at all. You, however, are an idiot for having no argument but going around calling other people’s comments stupid. The difference between me and you is that I can defend my point of view. You can’t. You’re a lame troll with nothing to offer. Shove it, loser.

      • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 11:53 am

        I’d say your comment is the stupid one. My comment is valid. The arguments presented by the writer are poorly thought-out. The crux of the argument is that the figurative use of “literally” makes the listener pause to think about whether the speaker is using one meaning or the opposite meaning. That is about as weak an argument as it gets.

      • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 3:07 pm

        The stupid comment is yours. I expressed a valid and supportable opinion. You came back with a weak insult.

      • Ryan H. -  May 26, 2015 - 10:38 am

        No, Bob, it’s a perfectly valid comment. People who go around calling other comments ‘stupid’ are the ones with the issues.

  22. Jesse -  September 6, 2013 - 1:29 pm

    The English language, while it originates from Latin, has been morphed by other languages as well. English has major influences from French and German as well as other languages. English is inconsistent because it’s a conglomerate of languages that try to be a homogeneous mixture. While the different languages, for the most part, meld together into what we call “English”, each individual language does have their moments where they stand out. For example: “Mal” is French and Spanish for “bad”. So when we try to understand the word “malfunction”, we can understand it to mean “bad function”; which is the essence of what the word means. Another example is the word “example”. The reason to have the “e” at the end of “example” is due to French. When speaking French, you do not pronounce the last letter of any word (unless to bridge the word you just said, which ended in a consonant, with the next word, which starts with a vowel). The whole reason to having the “e” after the “l” in “example” is due to French. “Example” did not start out as an English word. We adapted our language so that it could fit “example” in: that’s what gives our language power. English’s ability to mold and congeal into almost anything we need it to be, gives English a dynamic virtue to change, to harmonize.

    With the advent of the Information Age, there is now a huge need to condense language into short and concise sentences that can still convey every bit of meaning that a longer, more proper sentence could imply (such as texting). The whole idea of using “lol”, “brb”, “gtg”, “ttyl”, “u”, and so forth is to help enhance the speed at which we communicate so that we may be even more productive with our time.

    In closing, inconsistency, both in spelling and in meaning, is a consequence of having an easily adaptable language; but I believe in opposition in all things: that everything has a pro and a con. The pros of having English be inconsistent, is its adaptability; also that it can serve each individual person as they see fit to do so; finally, due to the malleable and multifaceted nature of the English language, it is sustainable and, therefore, should be able to brave the storms without much wear. The cons of inconsistency: English becomes, in a way, complex, disorienting, and writhe with all sorts of contradictions. With that said, I have no problem with the word “literally” being used in a figurative sense: it is a just another adaptation being used in the English language to serve some sort of purpose (possibly, the figurative meaning was developed for the use in humor).

    • Warren Weber -  April 11, 2015 - 2:22 pm

      The English language did not originate from Latin. While there are many words in English that come from Latin (as well as many words from other languages, English originated as a Germanic langugage.

  23. Parker -  September 6, 2013 - 12:55 pm

    David: agree with you about Shakespeare, but he wrote in (16th-17th century) Modern English. Chaucer wrote in Middle English.
    Ms. Otto: You assert that “a listener must pause to determine which meaning the speaker intends” as though it were a good thing. Metaphor that makes us pause for thought can indeed be good, but applying an illogical and opposite meaning to a word inhibits communication. Your example of “bad” meaning “good” derives from the phenomenon of feeling admiration for things or people that are also somehow intimidating, unpredictable or dangerous; its spread to being generally applied to anything good evinced a decrease in its precision, eventually inhibiting rather than enhancing communication. The use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” never enjoyed this oxymoronic honeymoon; it was always imprecise and illogical.

  24. Douglas -  September 6, 2013 - 10:35 am

    The main point not touched on by the article is the concept of “SARCASM.” When people use the word “literally” in the figurative sense, their statement is meant to be understood sarcastically. Same with the statement “We definitely need more” when you definitely do not need more. Using “definitely” when the opposite is true is meant to highlight the sarcasm – and the same is true for using literally when it is clearly a figurative meaning.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:44 pm

      The problem with your assertion is that you have no basis for it. You think you know what everybody is thinking when they use the word “literally” to mean non-literally? Why do you think this? What is the sarcasm, anyway? Do you know how sarcasm works? I’ve asked people, when they mis-use literally, what they were trying to say, and rarely have they answered that they were being sarcastic. Usually they turn out not to know about the distinction between literal and figurative to begin with. From my experience and what I’ve read from many others, the majority of people mis-using “literally” are using it as an intensifier and have no sarcastic intent.

  25. davea0511 -  September 6, 2013 - 10:30 am

    Gee whiz I never knew people inverted the meaning of “literally”. Either my associates never use “literally” that way or I’ve misinterpreted when they said as being literal when they meant to be figurative. Probably gave them a funny look when they said “I literally stuffed myself to death”. “Really? Because you’re walking and talking. I don’t think you’re dead. Just saying. Though I’m sure you ate a lot.”

    When people flip word meanings like this I think it’s sick, and by “sick” I do not mean the “sick” definition “something very noteworthy and desirable” which is just plain absurd. And not “absurd” in the good way … as there will certainly be that definition somewhere.

  26. Dr. Corndog -  September 6, 2013 - 10:01 am

    It’s been going on for how long? That only proves that people have been stupid for a long time.

  27. Paul -  September 6, 2013 - 8:38 am

    How about a new word for this new use: “illiterally”.

  28. Beau -  September 6, 2013 - 7:49 am

    It is hyperbole for effect. It is more a part of rhetorical flair than literal intention. It is most often paired with things that are impossible or extremely improbable. If you have an actual problem with this, then I believe the problem lies with you, and not with the word in this sense. I suggest therapy, or maybe a hobby or literally anything that will keep you from trying to police anymore.

    Also, unless you’re going to use formal logic yourself, then don’t call others out for not using it, especially when the Dicken’s example was simply to show that this wasn’t a recent phenomenon.

  29. Karan -  September 6, 2013 - 4:06 am

    I feel pity for the tortured souls

  30. immy -  September 6, 2013 - 2:45 am

    English language has dominated almost 80% of the world’s population, because most countries prefer using english as their official language so people will continue creating their own words basing on their culture, level of education, and so on, for example in uganda we turm boarding a taxi as benching, that is a clear sign that the invansion of english will continue!

  31. Sasha J. -  September 5, 2013 - 11:15 pm

    You’re literally missing the point. ;) The issue here is not that people misuse the word, it’s that a reference manual that is implicitly trusted to be correct is including incorrect information. I mean, if the encyclopedia suddenly started printing that the capital of Michigan is Detroit just because a lot of people mistakenly believe that, you’d be disgusted, too. The dictionary is a trusted source of information and it should be respected as such; when it begins to reflect a population’s ignorance, we SHOULD be upset.

    As for this ”ever-changing nature of English” argument, that’s b.s. in this case. The meaning hasn’t changed because, well, most people DO know what the word means. If the word were so mis-used that the average English speaker wouldn’t even realize that the altered definition was, in fact, altered, I’d probably agree that the definition has changed and dictionaries should reflect that change, but it isn’t. For example, the word ‘peruse’ is so misused that if dictionaries suddenly changed it’s definition to ”read briefly” and listed the (actually correct) ”read thoroughly” meaning as archaic, most people wouldn’t argue because most people already think it means ”read briefly.” You could easily argue that the definition of ‘peruse’ has changed and dictionaries should reflect that change. The word ‘literally’ obviously hasn’t reached that point yet so a definition alteration is unnecessary and confusing.

  32. Andy -  September 5, 2013 - 9:18 pm

    Linguists are literally one of the easiest groups of people to troll on the planet. I’m literally dying of laughter.

  33. FFarias -  September 5, 2013 - 12:36 pm

    Literally has the same root as literature. There are two main types of literature, and the meaning of literal reflects this.

  34. Gabby -  September 5, 2013 - 12:16 pm

    Providing “literally” a broader definition does not at all kill the language. It’s really a shout out to our linguistic history! Multiple Middle English words conveyed not only a variety, but also a contradiction of meanings. Rather than destroying the language, it created a world for poets to complicate. Chaucer is notable for his poetic ambiguity, and modern translations fail to capture the original richness because of this growing demand for an exact science for verbiage.

  35. Sam -  September 5, 2013 - 12:15 pm

    How ironic, the figurative or intensive use of the word literally can be used in the title of the Reddit post itself:

    ‘We did it guys, we literally killed English.’
    or ‘We did it guys, we finally killed English, literally.’

  36. Clark K -  September 5, 2013 - 8:36 am

    “Today does the intensifying sense pack more of a punch because of the widespread figurative use?”

    No. A word used correctly will pack the same “punch” as it is meant to, regardless of whether other people use it incorrectly. Now you’re talking about people using the word to seem smarter, similar to people who only criticize it’s usage to seem smarter.

  37. Oliver Pereira -  September 5, 2013 - 8:18 am

    Miriam is right to say that the line “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More” is not an example of a new meaning of the word “definitely”. It is an example of the word “definitely” being used with its usual meaning but in a sarcastic manner:

    “You can’t change the definition of a word just because someone chooses to use it sarcastically. If you did, you’d have to change every word in the dictionary to also mean it’s opposite. Wait–that’s a great idea! Literally!”

    The same applies, to a certain extent, when someone chooses to use a word figuratively. If I use the word “literally” in a sentence like, “It literally killed me,” then I am using the word “literally” with its usual meaning but in a figurative manner. I have not changed the meaning of the word “literally”, any more than I have changed the meaning of the word “killed”. I am simply employing a metaphor that extends to cover the adverb as well as the verb.

    If a particular figurative use of a particular word becomes so commonplace that people lose sight sight of the idea that it is figurative, then it might be worth saying that the meaning has changed. This may well have happened with the word “literally”, as used by some people.

  38. Oliver Pereira -  September 5, 2013 - 8:03 am

    To the many people who seem to think that language usage comes from dictionary definitions, rather than the other way round: have you seriously thought about what you are saying? Language existed for tens of thousands of years, at least, before the concept of writing – let alone dictionaries – was ever thought of. When dictionaries started being written, the compilers based their definitions on the usage that was current at the time. It could hardly have happened the other way round, could it? So if you find that a dictionary definition disagrees with current usage, then the dictionary definition is either out of date – usage has evolved – or just plain wrong. To claim that the *usage* is wrong makes as much sense as if you dropped two balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, found that the results differed from what Aristotle had written, and then concluded, “Oh, looks like the universe has got it wrong.”

  39. Holly -  September 5, 2013 - 7:17 am

    Hi…just a mom with five kids. I am impressed with the knowledge and opinions that have been discussed and feel out of my league. I love vocabulary, it’s usage and history. I am not a college graduate, but knows that because my word usage is more sophisticated. The schools, for the most part, especially public elementary schools use vocab books that have dated definitions (“entertain – to invite someone to stay at your house”). have lost interest in words. The erroneous “standards” have forced children to fall through the cracks and they give up on vocabulary, reading and writing, integral skills that are used in every subject and profession. Don’t get me wrong…that definition of entertain is also important, but it was has also been repurposed in a sense. Growing up in the fifties, my parents wouldn’t have equated entertain to video games like most kids do now. Hold onto the old and embrace the new…its not not going to change and we don’t want to be left behind! Let’s be productive by engaging a child to love words beginning with a meaning that is current and a progress to the more traditional. I love that the language changes, reach out, and enlighten one child…if we all did that and they enlighten us with new words and repurposed vocabulary, we would all be current and no one is left behind!

  40. John Gammon -  September 5, 2013 - 3:30 am

    I love that English is constantly changing, but there’s no need for this to be done because people are imprecise or ignorant. Why should careful users fit in with them, and not the other way round? It’s better that we explain to children what Ernest Gowers explained to British civil servants in Plain Words – the importance of making sure the person you’re talking or writing to knows exactly what you mean, and that this is going to save you a lot of time, effort and frustration. In other words, it will help YOU to be mindful of the English language.

    Some people take the misuse of words such as “literally” as the mark of a sloppy thinker: if you use it, you’ll probably be asked to explain yourself, and then possibly embarrassed by the withering remark, “So it’s NOT literally then?”

  41. Rob -  September 4, 2013 - 10:27 pm

    Figuratively and literally painful reading. Ouch.

  42. joliet_jane -  September 4, 2013 - 8:50 pm

    No, I won’t accept it. Literally means LITERALLY. And now that it’s in a bloody dictionary I’m both enraged and saddened. Stupid people ruin everything!

  43. Julia -  September 4, 2013 - 7:19 pm


  44. Phil Morrison -  September 4, 2013 - 3:47 pm

    As a linguist, I am appalled by the lack of reasoning that has been applied to this argument. This essay discredits dictionary.com and should be removed.

  45. HPLoveschaft -  September 4, 2013 - 9:59 am

    Don’t you mean “conversate in an adult manner”? :)

  46. Philip Beekley -  September 4, 2013 - 9:57 am

    …and to use spellcheck?

  47. MsAnthropy J -  September 4, 2013 - 9:26 am

    Listen to Podcast Lexicon Valley. They have a recent Podcast about this phenomenon. It’s argued from every angle and while the issue is really about how weird this word has become used as its opposite, many words have made that transition, so it’s really not that odd. Bad, for instance; “The Bomb”, perhaps… slang can’t be controlled. It is what it is….
    Also I blame this on the Mad TV sketches with Michael McDonald where he and his wife, presumably, are bored to tears at this kid’s baseball game and point out how “literally psycho” they’d been and “literally wanting to pull their eyes out”, etc… I think that’s where they began to expose how that word began trending upwards as a figure of speech rather than for its literal meaning…

  48. Matt -  September 4, 2013 - 8:02 am

    The “definitely” example isn’t a great example to defend your argument. Definitely is used sarcastically/ironically intentionally. Literally is used in place of figuratively by people who aren’t thinking about the meaning of the words.

    That said, if you want to used it ironically, that’s fine, if you know what you’re doing.

  49. Philip Beekley -  September 4, 2013 - 7:04 am

    Haven’t I TOLD you a million times not to exaggerate the use of the word ‘litereally’?!?

  50. Newbie -  September 4, 2013 - 6:21 am

    Maybe it would be easier to remember what “literally” literally means after you’ve read through a few programming language tutorials and learned that literal means something like “exactly whatever is represented right here in the source code” and that those preceding bits enclosed in quotes would be called a string literal. Maybe it should have been literally vs. literarily, where the second means fictional, but then you’d just stomp on the usage of “the literature” in mathematic or scientific papers, all of which were intended to be true. Maybe that would be their fault for calling it literature. While we’re killing English, let’s hackishly expand obliterate! We all need to spread English obliteracy to developing countries and obliterally wreck their entire sense of consistency in the universe. FOR REELZIES.

  51. "another" another passer by -  September 3, 2013 - 11:13 pm

    Her eyes were so warm I literally melted when she looked at me.
    Her eyes were so warm I figuratively melted when she looked at me.



    No one said anything about replacing “literally” with the word “figuratively”.
    You don’t use the word “figuratively” when you are being figurative.

    The article is about the figurative USE of “literally”, not using “figuratively” as a substitute for “literally”.

    Good Lord.

  52. babs -  September 3, 2013 - 12:38 pm

    While I agree with the both literal AND figurative meaning of the words ‘literally’, someone needs to explain to teenage girls how to use the word properly. they use it in ways that don’t make sense with either definition. For example:

    “I literally died”
    “I am literally fat”
    “He is literally the bomb!”

  53. Heather -  September 3, 2013 - 9:34 am

    The incredible nature of the English language is that it is in a constant state of change. I would never call anything the “death” of the English Language, that is much to harsh. The English Language will never suffer a painful death because it transforms or changes. As a scholar, one must marvel at how language lives and breathes and is never boring and stagnant.

  54. NOPE! Chuck Testa! -  September 3, 2013 - 8:00 am

    So… just because Dickens used it in an opposite sense to what we know it to mean it should suddenly begin meaning that????? And I thought the logic found on the internet was nuts.

  55. KarenT -  September 3, 2013 - 6:12 am

    To Andres – Figuratively speaking, I assume!

  56. Prasad -  September 3, 2013 - 3:23 am

    Yes, am with Andres Narra.
    I feel mortified when I see ‘literally’ being misused/abused in the ‘figurative’ sense, rather than its being properly used where it should be.

    3 CHEERS to Andres’ going a couple of steps farther down the line and equating it with chopping up the body….

    As Ben Zimmer said, it’s particularly grating to hear it so; yes, it’s GRATING.
    It’s a straightforward contradiction.
    Keeping aside some amongst us who do it to appear smart, as it’s claimed here. EVEN THAT doesn’t make it right.

    No, am not for (mis)using it for mere intensification.
    All you needed in the example above was a tonal emphasis on ‘is’ in the sentence “That is the billion-dollar question.”, taking out the ‘literally’, if it is not actually the case.

  57. Another Passer By -  September 3, 2013 - 1:54 am

    Consider this.

    Her eyes were so warm I literally melted when she looked at me.

    Her eyes were so warm I figuratively melted when she looked at me.

    ‘Nuff said.

  58. L. A. DuBois -  September 2, 2013 - 7:11 pm

    No, because Webster is a cheap knock-off for people who can’t spell. The OED is the true dictionary. Incidentally, it includes the following definition for ‘literally’:
    “5 /colloq. disp./ so called with some exaggeration or using metaphor (a literal avalanche of mail)”

    Anyway, those who say that use of words like this “kill the English language” don’t understand how language works.

  59. Michael Dino Cotugno -  September 2, 2013 - 7:10 pm

    I have never been in the habit of using literally in the figurative sense. I’ve heard it used that way literally thousands of times (see what I did there?), and it’s never really bothered me. Having grown up in a time of dramatic, rapid changes in technology, medicine, art, etc. It only makes sense that language should change rapidly as well – or at least more rapidly than it’s been used to.
    Languages change; it’s nature. It’s for this reason that there are so many dead languages. Language is a living thing, so it’s not unusual that the most adaptive languages are the ones that survive. “Survival of the fittest” doesn’t just apply to organic evolution.
    And the English language is definitely one of the fittest, absorbing and transforming more words from other languages that any other language out there.

    So, while I don’t necessarily embrace the change – it doesn’t affect me, really – I definitely don’t mind it. Adapting is surviving.

  60. David Charbonneau -  September 2, 2013 - 2:46 pm

    I find this piece literally, in places, nonsensical.

    While it is interesting to point out that Dickens used “literally” to mean “figuratively” way back in Victorian England, Dickens wrote so many words–getting paid by the word, in fact–that there’s probably a justification in his voluminous corpus for a whole host of usage errors. But that’s not the nonsensical part. Let me take a stab at that:

    First, your use of “bad” to mean the opposite of itself–as in “his own bad self”–is not an accurate analogy here. When people say, “I literally hit the roof!” they’re not trying to suggest that they actually hit the floor. They just mean “boy, was I pissed,” there’s no reversal of language as intensifier here, there’s just a kind of sloppy intensification: I mean, like, really. Second, the ironic use of “definitely” is also not analogous. Since when is an ironic use of a word part of its definition? Irony flows from context and is part of a word’s connotation, not its denotation. This is true unless the ironic definition becomes the accepted definition, in which case, it isn’t irony any more since it is not a violation of expectation, which is the essence of irony. Also, “literally” is not being used ironically here by most mis-users of it since they don’t know the difference between the literal “literally” and the figurative “literally” in the first place. This point also dispenses with your third claim since the only people who could find “literally” in the last example of the literal billion dollar question to be more satisfying due to its frequent mis-use as the figurative are those who know the difference in the first place (like thee and me), which leaves out everyone who is using it in what is clearly an unconsciously figurative sense. The loss of this difference is the loss of an actual conceptual distinction–unlike say the corruption of “couldn’t care less” to “could care less” or the post-Shakespearean prohibition against the double negative–and thus worth fighting against–however Don Quixote-like such a battle may be.

  61. Tucker -  September 2, 2013 - 2:18 pm

    I get the sense that people don’t like it (or maybe just me) because it’s used as an exagerater, and that’s annoying. “I was literally starving!”. Well, no you weren’t. Stop it.

  62. Omar Drake -  September 2, 2013 - 1:08 pm

    I think all of the people that have an issue with the figurative use of the word ‘literally’ need to learn the meaning of the word ‘hyperbole’.

  63. Ryan -  September 2, 2013 - 12:54 pm

    People don’t use “literally” to mean “figuratively.” When they say things like, “He literally had smoke shooting out of his ears,” they’re being ironic. They know you will understand that they are actually speaking figuratively (unless they’re idiots), but if they were to use the word “figuratively” instead of “literally” in such instances, it wouldn’t have the same emphatic effect. Just try it:
    “He FIGURATIVELY had smoke shooting out of his ears!”
    Changing the dictionary so that “literally” and “figuratively” are synonyms is absurd. It’s like changing it so that “great” means “terrible” because, sometimes, people mean, “This is terrible,” when they say, “Oh, great.”

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 11:59 am

      How is it you can read the minds of people? Have you surveyed people who use “literally” to mean “figuratively”? I have asked follow-up questions of people using the word that way, and you have it backwards. When people say, “He literally had smoke shooting out of his ears,” most of the time, if questioned, those people turn out to not understand the meaning of the word “literally.” They think it is an all-purpose intensifier, and they aren’t being ironic at all. That’s the problem: People don’t really know what the word means or how it is used. They hear it, think it’s a generic intensifier, and go from there. The author of this article thinks that people who point this out are doing so because “it’s an easy way to feel smart,” which is insulting and foolish on the part of the author, and it’s why this article is so weak and contributes so little to the discussion. People who are against the figurative use of “literally” simply do not like sloppy use of language being accepted as the norm. As is their right. Instead of insulting people for having standards, the question that should be asked is why you so merrily accept a lack of standards as the norm. I’m not just talking about language but in all walks of life.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 5:09 pm

      No, they’re not “being ironic.” They usually just don’t know what they’re saying — they don’t realize what the word “literally” means, and they’re using it because they heard somebody else using it and thought it was used for emphasis. You are making false excuses for people.

  64. Keith Laurie -  September 2, 2013 - 12:14 pm

    What cracked me up was that “literally” is used in this revised definition itself: “2. Used to acknowledge that something is not LITERALLY true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

    So, if we then apply this second definition for the capitalized word (above), does this all somehow become a double negative?

    Which brings me to Schroedinger’s cat…

  65. E. V. Cory -  September 2, 2013 - 9:19 am

    The figurative “literally” needs to go — now. It’s become a lazy person’s substitute for any appropriate intensifier (and one that might actually add something to the language being projected) used in better expressing one’s thoughts. Not only is it allowing for people to get away with barely thinking about what they’re saying, but, frankly, it is also simply amorphous baggage that, because it is these days allowed to mean almost anything in the effort toward intensifying a sentence, leaves any listener or reader puzzled as to what, exactly, the author of those words was *really* trying to convey. But then again, it’s just as likely that this hypothetical author wasn’t even trying to convey anything of substance anyway: the addiction to the use of the figurative “literally” might just be strong enough to obliterate any desires think creatively.

  66. Pawan -  September 2, 2013 - 4:03 am

    Just as human evolution, there’s been semantic evolution of words as well. You can’t simply frown at the usage of words just because it doesn’t accord to your lexical discretion. They change through the course of time.

  67. Julia -  September 2, 2013 - 2:57 am

    ‘Charles Dickens… : “his looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone…” ‘

    That’s awesome; I had no idea. I like how you’ve identified where the angst against figurative ‘literally’ comes from; I will now have no more angst about it.

    And I really like what you say about the figuratively use making the genuinely use so much more cutting.

    Language is cool. I’d like to create two new spellings (and thus two new words) for these:
    “I just haff to have one” “he always hass to have the newest”

    I’ll just haff to make an effort of using them in casual typey contexts, surrounded by good regular so it looks deliberate.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:03 pm

      Funny how a single use of a word by Charles Dickens is used to bolster the “correctness” of a word’s alternative definition, and in the same breath people argue that “language is constantly changing.” So which is it: Are you using an 1800s usage as a defense, or are you using “constant change” as a defense? Here’s an idea: How about using an argument that rests on the effectiveness of the word in communication, and gives priority to that above all else? Once you base your reasoning on that standard, you have to conclude that the respected definition of “literally,” used to mark a distinction from that which is figurative, is the most useful definition for purposes of communicating something effectively.

  68. MHV -  September 2, 2013 - 2:22 am

    This is horrible! Can’t people just stop following trends and/or stupid famous people and actually become intelligent? The languages are constantly changing; that can’t be avoided. Although, the whole point of languages is to turn communication possible, but for that to happen rules are necessary so that everyone speaks the same one. In the end, is it so hard to just learn and use it accordingly?

  69. damian -  September 1, 2013 - 11:45 pm

    The article seems to equate sarcasm and a misuse of language. The use of ‘definitely’ in “Bachelor Host Releases Dating App Because We Definitely Need More.” is clearly intended as sarcasm. Expecting dictionary listings to account for sarcasm is a little overkill. In my personal experience, in general conversation, I have NEVER heard someone intentionally misuse literally; taking enjoyment from their ironic wit. I am assuming Dickens would be an exception. Mostly it is people who are not aware of the error.

  70. Hebeestie Wallopman -  September 1, 2013 - 6:02 pm

    My head literally exploded. Viscera all over the walls.

  71. David Ellis -  September 1, 2013 - 5:13 pm

    Middle English, to many, is almost incomprehensible in some aspects. Yet the greatest dramatist in arguably any language wrote in Middle English. Does this delegitimate any use of contemporary English because Shakespeare’s English was so different to the language we use? Of course it doesn’t. The only languages that don’t change are ‘literally’ dead languages.

  72. Laura Nass -  September 1, 2013 - 4:42 pm

    Uh… to which Webster are you referring? The original one, Noah Webster, is long gone, and many various dictionaries have copied his surname ever since.

  73. djenick -  September 1, 2013 - 3:34 pm

    As I have been given to understand it, to take something literally originally meant to take it according to its literary style, whether as a statement of fact, simile, metaphor, allegory, etc. So that to take a metaphor as metaphor, a simile as simile, an historical narrative as historical narrative, and so on, is to take it “literally.” Having said this, however, I do my best to use the word literally to mean non-figuratively.

  74. S Firth -  September 1, 2013 - 1:39 pm

    Never have I been so confused by an explanation – literally!

  75. Prof. Dunberry -  September 1, 2013 - 1:15 pm

    Any student of mine who uses the figurative sense of the ‘literally’ without context that clarifies the hyperbole will literally get a bad mark.

  76. Ole TBoy -  September 1, 2013 - 11:08 am

    I know not to “lay” out in the sun, preferring rather to “lie”
    out in the sun. But this news concerning the proper usage
    of “literally” comes at me late in life. I hope I am not (at 81)
    a dog too old to learn new tricks. Swell article.

  77. JDS -  September 1, 2013 - 9:51 am

    I literally use “literally” literally and as an intensifier.

  78. Gerry-G-Goldberg -  September 1, 2013 - 8:44 am

    May I be figuratively ill at the ill-advised illogic of literally justifying language “creep” of the lazy language thinker? Or is “thinker” a contradiction in terms? Do I wait a while or awhile? (Please note this in awhile N.Y. Times. I do mean notice and not, as my be the future spelling fissure, not ice).

  79. Marilyn -  September 1, 2013 - 6:56 am

    Wouldn’t it be great if words were used according to their definition. It might be a refreshing change.

  80. Carlitos Payaso -  September 1, 2013 - 6:42 am

    I am sure you will literally have hundreds of pundits playing
    With this article but you have to figuratively be able to
    Go with the flow. Definitely!

  81. Michael Orr -  September 1, 2013 - 6:00 am

    Words are amazingly useful and literally powerful. Let’s be careful how we “limit” them as long as the message is conveyed more or less understandably.

    “A poem is the language
    Of all peoples at their core
    Speaking to the poet
    Words he’s never heard before”

    ~ Michael Orr

    Excerpt from:

    “I am a Poet” by Michael Orr – copyright 2013 – All rights reserved

  82. I.M. Knott -  August 31, 2013 - 11:55 pm

    Le Mot Juste or the right word… Either way, more and more people in America don’t seem to care whether they use it or not.

    By the “right word,” incidentally, I’m not referring to correct grammar. [see Good Grammar: Them’s the rules] I mean that many of us speak or write with correct grammar, but without pausing to consider what our words literally mean.

    The word “literally” is in itself a good example.

    “You’re literally playing with fire,” I heard recently on the radio. What the speaker should have said was just, “You’re playing with fire.” Everybody knows this is just a figure a speech, and understands you aren’t really playing with fire. By saying “You’re literally playing with fire,” however, this misguided individual was actually saying the opposite of what he meant to say.

    “On-air celebrities” and media personalities are some of the worst offenders when it comes to not using Le Mot Juste. It’s one thing for an average citizen to make a slip of the tongue in private conversation. It’s downright annoying when newspeople or movie stars, knowing they are under public scrutiny, don’t bother to think before speaking or putting their views in writing.

    “Mode of operandus,” for example, is a Latin-sounding phrase I heard Brad Pitt use one night on Larry King’s TV show. Okay, so Brad’s not expected to be a Latin scholar. I’m not either, but I certainly would have looked this up first, before making a fool of myself on nationwide television. [It’s supposed to be modus operandi.]

    A few more examples I’ve heard lately from the media’s best and brightest…

    They said: They should have said

    Button down the hatches! Batten down the hatches!

    A long road to hoe A long row to hoe

    If that’s what you think, If that’s what you think,
    you’ve got another thing you’ve got another
    coming. think coming.

    ‘bye for now. We’ll see ‘bye for now. We won’t
    you tomorrow. see you tomorrow,
    since we’re just
    talking heads on TV.

  83. x -  August 31, 2013 - 9:49 pm

    Your first sentence reads: “Recently the wordsmiths of the United States have availed themselves once again to descry the figurative use of the word literally.”

    I think you must mean “decry” (bemoan) not “descry” (make out), but I have no idea what you mean by “availed themselves”. Availed themselves of what?

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:06 pm

      The author’s failure to use language effectively within the first sentence is a measure of the value of her opinion about the main subject of the article.

  84. Nathan Duke -  August 31, 2013 - 9:46 pm

    I could literally care less; because frankly, I do care. Much of the change taking place today results from rapidly emerging technological / cultural trends, to which our vulgate responds through the force of broad popular necessity; as such this kind of tidal evolution constitutes purposeful and valuable improvement of our communications protocol.

    But this one is just retarded. Using a word ironically is one thing (due to the sarcastic value inversion it obviously doesn’t change the meaning of the word at all, a fact which was misapprehended by the author in his example of ‘definitely’) but whenever I have heard an individual say something was ‘literal’ when it was, in point of fact, ‘metaphorical’ or simply hyperbolic, I have glanced into their lobulus eyes, down into their somnolent souls… and not in a single instance have I detected a trace of the wry awareness that is prerequisite to (intentional) irony. The speaker has no clue that they have just perpetrated a pin-headed faux pas on the order of uttering the malapropism ‘supposably’ when what was meant was ‘supposedly’. But as noxious as that all-to-common blunder might be, it is far less egregious than the grammar-crime at hand. At least the definitions are somewhat proximal.

    In my view, it’s tantamount to tattooing “empty” across your forehead. I do not contest the claim that it is an example of language in flux, but I do decry it as one of the least warranted mutations taking place in the vulgate today, since such aimless drift is simply a function of a vast army of ninny, dingbat vocabutards mimicking the asinine jabber common to others of their kind.

    It literally makes me want to force feed them a nice, crisp onionskin page out of the L section of the dictionary.

  85. Osanu Osanu -  August 31, 2013 - 9:07 pm

    The English language , like any language, is like a life-form – it evolves. A shift in the use or meaning of words should therefore not surprise even the most conservative linguist or language expert. It a part of language evolution.

  86. John Sherman -  August 31, 2013 - 4:43 pm

    Actually, Merriam-Webster online unabridged has “in effect” as the third meaning for the word. The first example is: “a collection of … devices that will literally make your hair stand on end — Horace Sutton”.

  87. Elaine -  August 31, 2013 - 2:35 pm

    We do not care, or mostly that is, for English …if we did we’d not chop it up. Kids that use slang, yet grow up leaving that behind to converse in an adult manner and structurally what was learned in school, I think are becoming less and less.

    It is becoming a muddle of what does that mean or does it what is used to mean, confusion here.

  88. Ace -  August 31, 2013 - 2:23 pm

    I use “literally” when describing something in the literal sense. Not hard to figure out.

  89. James Kelley -  August 31, 2013 - 10:14 am

    I think you missed the #1 reason why the figurative use of the word “literally” grates on our nerves (at least for some of us.) We know that most of the people who use literally that way are doing it out of ignorance. I don’t mean to sound condescending with that. I catch myself doing it on occasion too, though I’ve managed, rightfully or wrongfully, to stop (I think.) But usually when I hear someone use “literally” as “figuratively” they do so unconsciously thinking that literally means figuratively. I say unconsciously because I don’t think most people literally stop and think to themselves, “literally” can mean symbolically if I want it to, so I’ll use it here. The word “literally” draws so easily from the lips and feels comfortable to say, and is so readily there at our disposal that we often just slip it in, as you point out, as an intensifier. I’m starving. I could literally eat a horse. I’m so mad I could literally beat the crap out of him. (At least I don’t think you can literally do that. Maybe.) So when someone at work says, I literally don’t have a clue, I give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t really mean “literally,” and having to tell myself that leaves me with the feeling that the word was just misused. That said, whether or not a person uses it without knowing that it’s “okay” or they are English savvy enough to use it with confidence in its new sense probably doesn’t matter. Such is language. But I’m glad you brought it up. I literally eat this crap up.

  90. Ammonite -  August 31, 2013 - 8:50 am

    Words and their definitions change over time. Letters of the alphabet are added and removed. Language itself changes with time, you can’t stop it.

    (Oh, and I use the word “literally” as “actually”, and sometimes as an intensifier, if I ever use the word at all.)

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:08 pm

      “Words and definitions change over time” should not be used as an argument for sloppiness.

  91. Richard Chiu -  August 31, 2013 - 8:10 am

    The problem with using “literally” to mean something other than “according to the letter” is that the reason it takes this usage is not simply a case of intentional irony as in the case of “definitely” being used in place of “definitely NOT!” (or, one might add, in any case where the intended meaning includes a capital “NOT!”). The term “literally” is often used to indicate that you are not simply using one of the many figures of speech in English which rely on exaggeration or reference an uncommon/outdated usage.

    When I say “limbs and body literally worn to the bone” I want it to be in the Dickensian sense of someone who is actually physically injured by long exertions to the point of severe osteopathic damage (or exposed bone). Dickens often exaggerated his characters, but when he says that someone’s limbs are literally worn to the bone you can take it that he means the actual bones are showing physical wear. The ordinary, non-Dickensian sense of being very tired is a mere figure of speech. One might also refer to “literally starving to death”, or “literally worth its weight in gold”, or “literally groping for clues”. Each of these phrases has an entirely different meaning without the term “literally”, and if we allow “literally” to no longer distinguish that meaning, then it literally becomes impossible to say certain things unambiguously in English.

    And the number of things that it becomes literally impossible to unambiguously state grows all the time. That is a real danger, one familiar to anyone who has tried to explain certain unusual situations to someone that takes “literally” to be a mere amplifier of figurative usage. And it is worth noting that very often the situation being affected has some of the character of an emergency, or at least a crisis. You might think it is a small loss to no longer be able to quickly explain that you’re literally in some unusual form of mortal danger, until it happens and you want to get help by using language instead of jumping, hooting, and gesticulating like an ape.

  92. Patrick Hopkins -  August 31, 2013 - 6:53 am

    The problem with using the word “literally” in a figurative sense is that it weakens the expressive power of English by eliminating a way to simply and clearly indicate a statement is actually, non-metaphorically, true. Look at the last few words of that sentence, in fact. If “literally” doesn’t mean “non-metaphorically” anymore, how are we to indicate what we say is non-metaphorical? Only through some tortured verbosity? It doesn’t matter if meaning inversion happens sometime or if people want to sloppily use yet another intensifier (in a language that is already bloated with intensifiers). What matters is whether a new use of a word adds to expressive power and accuracy or subtracts from it. Using “literally” to mean “non-literally” subtracts.

  93. Neil M. Goldman -  August 31, 2013 - 6:40 am

    I am going to start calling my neighbor’s dog a cat, and I’ll begin referring to his son as his daughter, because this sort of thing is literally OK now.

  94. Eric -  August 31, 2013 - 6:39 am

    Meaning reversal sometimes results from ignorance, but it is, I suspect, more often an aspect of rebellion. People learning English as a second language must love it! (Let’s see…..is that meaning reversal or sarcasm?)

  95. Brano -  August 31, 2013 - 4:54 am

    sure why not. after all grammar and linguistics in general are just a pseudo-science where the so-called rules only copy the actual present state. we all spoke a certain way thousands of years before there was such thing as grammar. grammar doesn’t tell me what the rule is, i tell it. and so if ‘literal’ one day starts to officially mean ‘figurative’, then the all mighty linguistics will have no choice but to like it and live with it.

  96. Barry Weedon -  August 31, 2013 - 4:01 am

    That the metaphorical use of ‘literally’ grates on many people’s ears is only one objection to it.

    More interestingly, it is such a weak intensifier that it is rarely, if ever, used in its ‘correct’ sense. One might say that every assertion using ‘literally’ non-fighuratively is literally banal, boring, trite, predictable or dull.

  97. Jamie McRobb -  August 31, 2013 - 3:16 am

    I’ve never heard ‘literally’ used as a truly figurative term, rather it’s used ironically to emphasis a point.

    Of a Sunday morning (following a Saturday night, as they do) one might be heard to say, “I am literally going to die.”

    It is figurative because you’re not dying, but you know you’re not dying so you’re not misusing the word, just lying, which is fine… grammatically at least.

  98. Trystan White -  August 30, 2013 - 8:54 pm

    I realize that the meaning of words change as the people who use them decide to use them in different fashions, but I can’t help but have the feeling that English changes simply because people use the language wrong.

    So I think I’m just going to slowly start using every word wrongly until it becomes the norm, so I can make “Flapperjacks made unto the literal shout” to mean “How is your day going madam?”

  99. john -  August 30, 2013 - 7:03 pm

    I believe this analysis of the use of the word “literally” is incorrect. For example when someone says “I literally talked to a million people on the phone in the past hour.” They clearly could not possibly have done so. Even though they used the word “literally” it is not the word that is used figuratively, it is the sentence. Leave out the word “literally” and you have the same clearly impossible feat, it is added to a figurative sentence and does not add any additional figurative meaning or intensity to the figurative nature of the sentence. It merely intensifies the sentence’s exaggeration, not it’s figurative nature, in the same sense that it adds intensity when added to the sentence “I literally talked to five people on the phone in the past 3 days.”. The definition does not change based on the sentence in which it was used or just because it was used in a figurative or literal sentence.
    In my opinion an exaggeration is a lie.
    Please don’t change or add to the definition of words because people use them in lies or exaggerations, or in the case of the word “definitely”, sarcasm.

  100. Adrienne -  August 30, 2013 - 5:49 pm

    Amen, Andres! This article was pretty much (literally?) hogwash.

  101. Benjamin -  August 30, 2013 - 4:43 pm

    I LITERALLY don’t see how the use or misrepresentation of one word could ruin the English language as a whole. Could the use of a word–or improper use of a word–degrade or cheapen the speaker? Sure. It could make the speaker or writer appear grammatically challenged. But not the entire language.
    I agree with this article; although, unlike the author, the erroneous use of “literally” does grate on my nerves. However, to decry it as the death of the English language, when words like “Twerking” are being added to the dictionary, is quite LITERALLY an exaggeration.

  102. Miriam -  August 30, 2013 - 4:03 pm

    I don’t agree with using “literally” as “figuratively”.

    re: definitely – In the reference you sited, I don’t think that the writer was trying to change the definition of “definitely”, they were just using it sarcastically. You can’t change the definition of a word just because someone chooses to use it sarcastically. If you did, you’d have to change every word in the dictionary to also mean it’s opposite. Wait–that’s a great idea! Literally!

  103. Sean -  August 30, 2013 - 2:23 pm

    Having two antagonistic definitions for the same word does not seem at all convenient. I disagree with the use of “literally” as a term synonymous with “figuratively” inasmuch as it will undoubtedly bewilder anyone who comes across the word having to decide whether it was used literally or not. The definitions Google provides are usually incorrect, to some degree or other, so it is either they employ better lexicographers- I do not know who Google’s definitions are established but I hope that someone who actually knows what they’re doing is behind it- or redefine every word they show definitions for.

  104. Lizz the Librarian -  August 30, 2013 - 2:10 pm

    The English language has spent a few hundred years morphing into the language we use today, why would we think that the change would just stop? I love that English becomes what the people who use it need it to be. David Crystal has written over 100 books on the topic of linguistics and the English Language and he is quite confident we are not killing our language. In fact, Linguists rarely bring up the topic, and when they do it is typically to reassure everyone that it isn’t dying or going anywhere. The only people who are consistently dismayed with the issues of “proper English” and the changes in English are the teachers who are teaching it.

    Maybe we should get them some updated resources?

    I love that English keeps up with people in a modern way. When was the last time you said, “let’s do coffee sometime” or “I’m on the phone” – neither of those are “correct English,” but they have become common place. Three cheers for English – old English, current English, and the English of the future.

  105. Archon -  August 30, 2013 - 1:16 pm

    So many errors, where to begin??! The word avail (to be of use) does not mean what the writer seems to think it means. The word descry (to see or notice) should be decry (to condemn or censure.) Casey Chan does not describe something as “make-believe” and real, in the same sentence. He condemns it for being make-believe, but admits that it is far-too-common usage. “Ain’t” is in the dictionary, but not in acceptable usage.
    “Literally” IS a more effective, and accurate, intensifier than “really, actually or absolutely”, for a business deal that is “literally” for $1,000,000,000. “The billion-dollar question” is literally not correct for the choosing of a pair of heels, or smartphone. That, figuratively, slays me.

    • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 3:12 pm

      The author’s consistent errors should be taken as an indicator of how much value her opinion holds regarding the definition of the word “literally.”

  106. Bart Farv -  August 30, 2013 - 1:09 pm

    “People are complaining about something happening. And yet similar instances have occurred in the past! Therefore, there are no grounds for complaint.”

    This line of reasoning is literally always without merit.

  107. Johanan Rakkav -  August 30, 2013 - 12:21 pm

    Would that inversion of meaning were the only problem with English.

    Calvin: Verbing weirds language.
    Hobbes: Someday we may make language a complete barrier to communication.

  108. Andres Narra -  August 30, 2013 - 11:27 am

    The day when Webster finally define “literally” as an emphasis for a figurative expression, I’ll be using the word “figuratively” as an adverb to take words in its most basic and literal sense, i.e. without metaphors and allegory,

    And then–then!–we would not have only killed English, but chopped up the body and stored it in the freezer.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:54 am

      No, we are talking about ‘literally’ being used in a hyperbolic (or figurative) sense. Webster’s Dictionary must surely accept that definition. The OED does — it has for years.

    • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 12:59 am

      Definition of “literally” from Merriam-Webster:

      Definition of LITERALLY

      1: in a literal sense or manner : actually
      2: in effect : virtually

      Note number 2! LOL!

      • Bob -  August 8, 2014 - 1:00 am

        In full:

        Definition of LITERALLY

        : in a literal sense or manner : actually “took the remark literally” “was literally insane”
        : in effect : virtually “will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins”

      • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 12:11 pm

        Bob, you wrote out the second definition but you forgot to include the term “antiquated” which appears before that definition. How very dishonest of you. Really — you can’t make your point without a lie of omission?

      • Ryan Hillerson -  May 24, 2015 - 3:10 pm

        One problem, Bob: You are lying. Within the dictionary definition you cite, it is clarified that the “figurative” definition is archaic and obsolete. You had to omit this in order to make your point. Which means you must know you’re wrong about it. Weak, Bob, weak.

        • I know where you work -  March 11, 2016 - 12:45 am


          • TS -  March 11, 2016 - 12:47 am

            Cool article

          • TS -  March 11, 2016 - 12:48 am

            Cool article

      • Ryan H. -  May 26, 2015 - 10:38 am

        You neglected to mention that the dictionary you’re citing refers to the 2nd definition as archaic and obsolete. Lies of omission do not help your case.

        • I know where you work -  March 11, 2016 - 12:46 am

          Always thought you were kind of weird.

        • TS -  March 11, 2016 - 1:49 am



Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top