Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Really! Truly! Literally!

Yesterday the always entertaining "Editorial Emergency!" team of Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner contributed a column on the misuse of the word literally. I keep tabs on people's pet peeves about English usage, and this is certainly one of the most widespread complaints currently in circulation. There's even a blog entirely devoted to "tracking abuse" of literally. I agree with Simon and Julia that using literally as an intensifier can often "strain credulity" when it's emphasizing a figurative expression like "a handful of Jewish members." But allow me to play devil's advocate for the much-maligned hyperbolic extension of literally. Like many usage bugaboos, it gets a bad rap while other similar perpetrators get off scot-free.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and the subject of our recent three-part interview on the OED, wrote eloquently on the subject for the online magazine Slate in 2005. He points out that gripes about literally are a relatively modern phenomenon dating to the early twentieth century, even though examples of the "bad" intensive usage can be found long before that in the work of esteemed writers. I went hunting for early examples of literally intensifying something not so literal and found eighteenth-century attestations like these:

I look upon it, Madam, to be one of the luckiest circumstances of my life,  that I have this moment the honour of receiving  your commands, and the satisfaction of confirming  with my tongue, what my eyes perhaps have but too weakly expressed — that I am literally the humblest of your servants.
— George Colman and David Garrick, The Clandestine Marriage (1766)

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.
— Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague (1769)

Even in the 1760s, writers could take a metaphorical expression — "the humblest of your servants" or "to feed among the lilies" — and give it extra emphasis by adding the word literally. And several decades before that, Alexander Pope made use of literally in his correspondence for something that seems pretty non-literal:

Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same.
— Alexander Pope, Letter to H. Cromwell (18 Mar. 1708)

Unless Pope was living his life like Bill Murray's character in the movie Groundhog Day, it's hard to imagine that each of his days was actually "another yesterday."

For centuries, literally has served as an intensifier for expressions both actual and metaphorical, but the metaphorical side of the usage began to come under fire about a century ago from usage mavens like H.W. Fowler, who decried those who "do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." Fowler's gripe, like those who have followed him, is that literally has been extended to mean the exact opposite of its "true" sense. It's become a so-called "Janus word," semantically facing in two contradictory directions. This kind of flip-flop does happen from time to time in the history of English usage — see the recent Word Routes column on the word subprime for a timely example. But not every Janus word falls under the same kind of vituperation that literally has confronted in the last hundred years.

Consider other adverbial intensifiers that would seem to describe something as actually existing in a non-metaphorical state: really, truly, absolutely, and positively. Here are some mid-nineteenth century literary examples from Dickens and Thackeray:

But the weather is extremely trying, and she really has been bored to death down at our place in Lincolnshire.
— Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

How good, how kind, how truly angelical you are!
— William Makepeace Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring (1855)

The Captain was absolutely rooted to the ground, and speechless.
— Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1848)

By heavens, mon cher Abbe, a charming creature, but a tigress — positively a tigress.
— William Makepeace Thackeray, Catherine (1839)

Why don't we hold these intensifiers to the same standard as literally? Is "really bored to death" only acceptable when boredom is indeed fatal, or "truly angelical" when actual angels are being described (assuming you believe in their existence)? In a similar fashion, absolutely and positively can be used to emphasize states of being that are not necessarily the absolute, positive truth, but are instead only metaphorically true, like being "rooted to the ground" or resembling a "tigress."

I think 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. We're not so attuned to the mismatch of other "real and true" adverbs getting used for purposes of hyperbole, a figure of speech that sets up scenarios that are neither real nor true. Still, whether it's literally or some other emphatic adverb, Simon and Julia's advice stands: don't strain credulity when you're already depicting something outside of reality. Used effectively, hyperbole should work perfectly well on its own, without needing to add an intensifier like literally. At best it's redundant, and at worst it's an annoying distraction that is sure to raise the hackles of Grumpy Grammar Gus.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 19th 2008, 1:45 AM
Comment by: LisaMarie71 (Southern California, CA)
I have a friend who cringes every time he hears someone say "literally..." His mother was an English teacher and so he can "hear" her correcting the misused word. I, on the other hand, agree with Mr. Zimmer in that although it is annoying when "literally" is used as an intensifier, I find that the result is to make the statement more absurd than a distraction. It makes me want to give the people speaking the web address to Visual Thesaurus. I would advise them to learn a new word, phrase or word usage a day, so as to deepen their appreciation of the English language, and improve the populous dialogs above a 4th grade reading and speaking level. I'm tired of speaking in monosyllabic words.
I am a private grammar, college-prep high school, and a University graduate. Vocabulary was top of the list at all of the schools. Where is all of the intelligent writing and thought provoking dialog today? Sometimes when I get going on a rant, my friends will say that I "spent" a lot of money for that opinion. They are referring to the twenty-five and fifty cent words used. (Twenty-five cents for each syllable over 2 syllables in a word.) I say "yes, and I'm proud of it!" ~ Lisa
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Jeff T.
My pet peeve is the mis-use of the phrase "no pun intended". I often hear this said when it is plainly clear that no pun was intended or even possible. I even hear this used when a pun clearly was intended, as in "Okay, folks, the hot dogs are ready, so bring your buns over here."
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 11:25 AM
Comment by: sarah R. (jamaica plain, MA)
There's a passage in "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson about the use of "very" or "just". The narrator points out how these can (disappointingly) dull their adjective. Every time she uses "very" or "just" from there on in is an effective use of the word, and an excellent writing lesson! I would quote it here but the text isn't easily available online. It's near the beginning, around pg 40.
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 1:24 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Regarding "no pun intended". I've used it and understood it to refer to unintentional puns, Freudian slips, those statements where you don't realize it's a pun (and usually an insulting, sexual or otherwise socially embarrassing one) until it's out of your mouth and squirming over the barbecue. So I see no problem with "no pun intended" after "...bring your buns over here.", if the speaker really didn't intend the joke. It's less annoying to me than guffawing, elbow nudging or saying, "get it? your buns!" to emphasize the intentionality of a bad joke.
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 5:13 PM
Comment by: Steve C.
For those who aren't easily offended by r-rated language, David Cross does a wonderful bit on the misuse of 'literally' on his CD, Shut Up, You F***ing Baby. Last segment on the disc. Hilarious.
Tuesday August 19th 2008, 6:36 PM
Comment by: James L.
Ben I like your comparison of "literally" with others like "truly" "really" etc. I'm less convinced by your earlier examples of the word "literally" though.

What word or phrase would you advise Pope to replace "literally" with, in ...

"Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same."

"Every day with me is *very much like* another yesterday ..."

"Every day with me is *just like* another yesterday"

If his life was so tedious that one day was exactly the same as another, except for *truly* minute details (the exact patterns of clouds, the length of his servant's whiskers) then could they not be literally alike? Perhaps the complaint is more with his use of the word "exact", since - as you suggest - the days cannot be exactly alike.

Besides, depending on the grade of opiate available to him when he wrote it, who's to say he wasn't reliving the same time and again?

"Literally" is linked not to the day, but - "with me" - to Pope's own experience of it.
Thursday August 21st 2008, 3:10 AM
Comment by: KingsChampion (New York, NY)
I may be somewhat off,but my knee jerk reaction brought to mind using "de facto" !! ??? I wake up every day,to realize this day,was "de facto" a replication of the day before...?...Maybe I'm stretching it,but I think it works in certain cases.
Thursday August 21st 2008, 5:51 AM
Comment by: jocelyn E. (Tasmania Australia)
how do others feel about the quaint expression " I fell pregnant"----or"she fell pregnant" ( ?) It is surely rather Dickensian. Why not just a happy, simple announcement---" I'm pregnant"---" she is pregnant".
Friday April 9th 2010, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
There was a time when the non-literal use of literally bugged me a little, owing to the influence of a curmudgeonly imp on my left shoulder. Nowadays I'm not remotely bothered by this usage, though I don't indulge in it myself. At least, I haven't noticed myself doing so...

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