How literal is literal?

Have you noticed that literally doesn’t literally mean ‘literally’ anymore?

It’s now quite frequently used as a general intensifier. I’ve only recently begun to notice it in phrases like I literally died laughing and I literally worked myself to death. Online dictionaries say this is an "informal" usage.

Compact English Dictionary:

1. in a literal manner or sense
2. informal used for emphasis (rather than to suggest literal truth)

Cambridge International Dictionary of English:

1. used to emphasize what you are saying
  <He missed that kick literally by miles>
  <I was literally bowled over by the news>
2. simply or just
  <Then you literally cut the sausage down the middle>

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary:

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

They add:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

None of my readily available print dictionaries mention this "informal" usage, although the thesaurus part of Collins dictionary and thesaurus (publ. 1987) lists actually and really under literally, words which can similarly be used for emphasis. Also, one of my English-Swedish dictionaries, Engelsk-Svensk ordbok by Kärre, Lindqvist, Nöjd & Redin, publ. 1938, does add "fullkomligt" (meaning ‘entirely’) as a possible translation for literally, but labels it "familjärt" (i.e. colloquial).

It’s use for emphasis must be fairly new. At least I’ve just started noticing it, although that’s admittedly no proof of anything but my observational skills. However, older dictionaries don’t seem to recognise it at all. For instance, the online version of Webster’s 1828 dictionary says:

1. According to the primary and natural import of words; not figuratively.
  <A man and his wife cannot be literally one flesh>
2. With close adherence to words; word by word.
  <So wild and ungovernable a poet cannot be translated literally.>

(The same appears in the online version of Webster’s 1913 edition.)

Anyway, I’m not opposing this (new?) usage. The fact that words change meaning is an inevitable and natural feature of any living language. It’s a sign of health. Word meanings are only stable in dead languages.

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1 Comment

  1. jfmaho said,

    Monday, July 6, 2009 at 5:17

    I just spotted a wonderful example of non-literal ‘literal’ in the wild.

    Following the sudden and unexpected resignation of the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, one of her staff, Meg Stapleton, was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Among the many questions asked, one was about Sarah Palin’s future, to which Ms Stapleton replied “The world is literally her oyster…”.


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