Frequently misused words: literally


literally: in a literal sense or manner; actually

Literally comes from the word literal. People began using it in the 1530s to mean in a literal sense.[i]

Usage controversy
What is happening to literally is a lot like what is happening to unique, which we learned in the last post. People are using unique in its true meaning, of being the only of its kind, but they are also using it to mean unusual. People are watering down the word’s meaning (through semantic bleaching) to make it mean something different.

With literally, people are changing the meaning from in a literal sense to figuratively.

Take a look at these examples:

That joke was so funny that I literally peed my pants!

I was so mad at my boss that I literally jumped out of the window!

Now, if the person actually (or rather, literally) peed his pants, it is doubtful that he would want to share that story. (But I sure wouldn’t mind hearing that joke.) Likewise, if the person in the second example literally jumped out of the window, unless it was on the first floor, he probably wouldn’t still be alive to tell his story.

What the people in these examples really mean is that they figuratively peed their pants and that they figuratively jumped out of the window.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that literally began being “erroneously used in reference to metaphors, hyperbole, etc., even by writers like Dryden and Pope, to indicate ‘what follows must be taken in the strongest admissible sense’ (1680s), which is opposite to the word’s real meaning.”[ii]

If literally has been used to mean figuratively since the 1680s, is there any way it can restore its original meaning? Perhaps the better question is, should we, as writers and speakers, just say “whatevs” and use literally in any context we please?

Where Grammar Party stands
My answer is: Stop it. Stop it, people! Literally stop using literally unless you are talking about something that has literally happened.

If you want to express how a joke you heard was so hilarious that it could theoretically induce unintentional peeing of pants, say something like, “Man, that joke was so funny that I nearly peed my pants.” Or if you want to explain just how upset your boss made you, say, “Man, my boss made me so mad that I almost jumped out of the window.” Unless you literally did something, and it happened in real life, don’t use literally.

In short, where Grammar Party stands on this issue of utmost importance is: Don’t use literally to mean figuratively. Use literally to mean literally.

Word Usage Week
It’s Word Usage Week at Grammar Party. Check back tomorrow for more vocabulary goodness and word nerd controversy.

Here is some literally extra fun
The Oatmeal has a literally hilarious comic that I think lovers of literally will enjoy. Find it on The Oatmeal’s website here.

[i] Online Etymology Dictionary.


7 thoughts on “Frequently misused words: literally

  1. I’m with you, and I’ll literally repeat what you said: “Don’t use literally to mean figuratively. Use literally to mean literally.”

    I remember that about 15 years ago a coworker of mine claimed that one of the definitions of literally that he’d seen in a certain dictionary (I don’t recall which dictionary) was ‘not literally.’

  2. Well, language changes, and this is definitely a case of that. This usage of “literally” is very common among teens (which I am and I use it!) so this is a colloquial usage. We also say things like “Someone can edit THEIR paper” when there is no plural subject. It’s just a thing we say nowadays. Like I said, language changes, and nothing is wrong with this. It LITERALLY bugs me when people complain about it. English speakers understand what another speaker is trying to say when they use “literally” to mean “figuratively”, so I don’t see why people should complain about it.

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