The literal truth about literally

Karin Ciano, BridgeTower Media Newswires

There’s literally a battle going on for the soul of literally.

Compared to many words lawyers use, literally has a clear history and an undisputed meaning. We start at the word literal, which derives from the Latin word for letter (as in the letters of a word), and add -ly to make an adverb intended to modify the word or phrase that follows.

In the 17th century, literally advanced onto the stage with a walk-on part, introducing verbatim quotations and translations: “She said, literally, keep reading, because I’ll be getting to the point shortly.” Thus deployed, literally meant “in the very words,” “word for word,” or “exactly” (hat tip OED). And when the English language promoted literally to a meatier role, that meaning of “exactly” stuck with it. An earnest commentator who recently observed that the press took a presidential candidate’s words “literally, but not seriously,” while his supporters took him “seriously, but not literally,” was not only pointing out a distinction between how people regarded the candidate, but also using literally in its traditional, well-accepted sense.

The meaning of literally hasn’t changed in 400 years. Look at a dictionary and you’ll find it still means “exactly” (or for thesaurus fans, actually and precisely, among other synonyms).

Surprised? I was, because I rarely hear the word literally used this way anymore. In ordinary speech, we’re using literally when we really mean figuratively, metaphorically, or virtually. When it modifies a metaphor or hyperbole — “the team was literally destroyed after last night’s game” — literally is being used simply to intensify the figure of speech. So far more typically I’ll hear about someone “literally with his hair on fire” or “literally buried alive by work,” when literally is modifying an expression that isn’t meant to be taken, well... you know.

As you might expect, a trend this widespread has been around a long time. The OED dates the earliest published misuse of literally to 1863, where an author indicated that a person had become wealthy by writing that they “literally coined money.” No doubt this edgy, ironic usage titillated Victorian audiences; but as it caught on literally like wildfire, it also brought down the wrath of literally generations of writing authorities.

Here’s H.W. Fowler, writing nearly a century later: “We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression ‘not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking,’ we do not hesitate to insert the very for that we ought to be at pains to repudiate.”

Forty years later, Bill Bryson noted that literally was “[a]ll too often used as a kind of disclaimer by writers who mean, literally, the opposite of what they are saying. The result is generally excruciating....”

Even more recently, Bryan Garner has called the substitution of literally for figuratively a “slipshod extension,” the “mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense.”
Whenever literally precedes an obvious figure of speech, it appears to mean figuratively — and eventually, after seeing the mistake often enough, a lot of us decide that that’s what it means.

We shouldn’t. English, bless its heart, can handle a few words that mean both a thing and its opposite (think sanction and oversight). Such words are appropriately rare: they impose a cost upon the reader because they require a close read not just of the sentence but of the surrounding sentences to be sure the meaning is fully understood. That cost is magnified when the reader is asked first to discern the meaning of a colloquial expression (“hair on fire” means “excited or agitated”) and then have to unpack whether literally does, or does not, mean “this in fact actually happened.” Our readers deserve better, and we can give it to them.

What’s a careful writer to do in the face of the creeping slipshoddery surrounding literally?

Look it up. Whenever I need reassurance that a word still means what I think it means, I look it up. When it comes to literally, dictionaries and usage guides are bravely holding the line, and they deserve our support.

Use it (properly). Bill Bryson: “If you don’t wish to be taken literally, don’t use literally. The word means actually, not figuratively. It is acceptable only when it serves to show that an expression used in a figurative sense is to be taken at its word, as in ‘He literally died laughing.’”

Lose it. Unsure whether you’re using literally exactly as it should be used? Remember it’s an adverb, and adverbs can almost always be omitted without loss of meaning. The English language offers many ways to show a writer really feels strongly about something, yet relatively few ways to signify that a writer should be taken exactly at his or her word. If you use metaphor or hyperbole, accept that such expressions are never to be taken literally (that’s the point), and take literally out. The machines can help us here: a word processor’s search-and-replace function can find and delete all instances of literally. For bonus points, try out the Chrome browser extension that translates literally into figuratively.

To paraphrase Bill Buckley, a grammar nerd stands athwart slipshod linguistic change, “yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it.” This is that time—literally.