Definition of the Word ‘Literally’ – Virtual ‘Literally’ is not Illiteracy, but it is a Casual Misuse of a Word

I don’t know if the title of this post is exceptionally clever, but it is a lot of fun to say out loud. If that title made this sound good enough to read, then, like me, you’re probably someone who has a solid opinion on the proper use of the word ‘literally’. Have you ever corrected anyone who has used the word ‘literally’ to mean figuratively? God, I hope so.

I guess this is my attempt at correcting every misuse of the word ‘literally’. That’s a waste of time, I suppose, but my time is my own to waste. I’ve looked up definitions. I’ve found quotations, some more relevant than others. The first will be a quote from President Dwight David Eisenhower :

“An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.”

I don’t know that I would have considered myself an intellectual, but by Eisenhower’s definition I’m about to become one. I’m taking the time to carry on a one sided semantic debate with myself for the world to read.

What difference does it really make? Who cares if someone wants to use ‘literally’ to mean virtually or figuratively? Granted, it annoys the hell out of me, but not nearly as much as people who talk out loud in movie theaters or drivers who don’t use their turn signals. I have plenty of pet peeves to rattle on about, so why write about this one? It’s because, much to my horror, I recently discovered that I was on the wrong side of the argument. Thanks to the internet, a debate among online video gamers who I have never met, playing a game I had never heard of, has educated me about proper grammar. The post I’m referring to, from Sam the Turtle, is here.

I hate it when the word ‘literally’ is used to mean figuratively. “You should have seen his performance! He was literally on fire!” No he wasn’t. “We literally inhaled that pizza.” No you didn’t. “The kid is literally a monster!” Well, maybe, that depends on the definition of ‘monster’ more than the definition of ‘literally’.

If I were to correct anyone using any of those mistaken sentences, they could make a great defense by referring me to a dictionary. That’s right. The dictionary agrees that the word ‘literally’ can be used to mean virtually, or it can be used to add emphasis. A dictionary on my desk right now says so. It’s a Merriam-Webster dictionary from 1991. So not only has the dictionary defined ‘literally’ to mean virtually, that happened a long time ago. Literally. Just how long ago was the definition of ‘literally’ officially expanded? I don’t know. I’m not going to look that up, but it was over twenty years ago.

Even so, I still disagree completely that ‘literally’ can be used to mean anything other than actual or real. It might sound like sour grapes, but I’m going to point out that the dictionary is just the dictionary. It is put together by human beings, flawed and fallible human beings. So it follows that the dictionary itself might have some flaws. I hope it has very few flaws since I rely on it, but I can’t ignore a flaw when I find one.

I don’t know where dictionary definitions come from. I don’t know who writes them. I don’t know who determines which are to be included and which aren’t. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. That would be like knowing how a magic trick is done. I’d rather enjoy the show and be mesmerized. I don’t want to know how the magician performs his trick. I do, however, know that it is a trick. When I see a magic show, I know that things aren’t really appearing or disappearing. It’s an illusion. The dictionary is similar. The idea that the dictionary has authority over language is just an illusion. Don’t get me wrong. I will most often bend to the wisdom of the dictionary. Not this time. No matter what the dictionary tells me, hot is not cold, black is not white and literally is not virtually. I don’t need permission from the dictionary to disagree.

It’s not fair to simply throw stones from a distance. Instead, I will do battle directly. I will parry some individual dictionary definitions.

Dictionary.com gives these definitions for ‘literally’ :

  1. in the literal or strict sense
  2. in a literal manner; word for word
  3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy
  4. in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually

Aargh! That last one! It doesn’t just disagree with me! It disagrees with the three definitions above it! But Dictionary.com is not done yet. It goes on with this :

Usage note

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “In effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration” … The use is often criticized. Nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of the word literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”.

Well, it looks like Dictionary.com feels the need to defend the practice nearly to the point of apology. “It appears in all but the most carefully edited writing.” Really? I suppose that’s possible, but it doesn’t change my point. In all fairness, it’s entirely possible that I, myself, might have misused ‘literally’. After all, my writing is not amongst “the most carefully edited.” Writing, typing or saying the word though, I hope that anyone who notices my misuse is annoyed by it, and I do apologize if it ever has happened or if it ever will.

Moving on, let’s see what the Oxford Dictionary has to say about ‘literally’. (A quick admission though, I’m getting these definitions online. They are from the official websites, but I didn’t take them from any printed page.)

1 In a literal manner or sense; exactly

1.1 informal Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true

Usage

In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a nonliteral or exaggerated sense.’ … In recent years, an extended sense of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect … This can lead to unintentional humorous effects (‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing’) and is not acceptable in formal English.

Aaah, now that’s much better. It does recognize the incorrect use of the word, and I can’t argue with that, but it also insists that it is “not acceptable in formal English.” Well, that’s not what other dictionaries have to say on the subject. That goes to help my point that a dictionary can not be considered an absolute authority. They disagree, so which one is the authority? The one that says figurative ‘literal’ is okay, or the one that says it isn’t? I’d love to suggest that I consider Oxford more authoritative than others, but I can’t. This same site includes ‘amazeballs’ and ‘bromance’ as words. ‘Amazeballs’ and ‘bromance’ are not words. I do not object to their use, but they don’t really belong in the dictionary do they? I mean, gag me with a spoon, what neo maxi zoom dweebie wanted to make ‘amazeballs’ a real word?

I have to make a brief aside here about those last four sentences. I had to look up neo maxi zoom dweebie to know how exactly to spell it. It was not in the dictionaries mentioned above but there were other sites that had it. Also, humorously, my spellcheck puts an angry red underline beneath the word ‘bromance’, but not ‘amazeballs’. So Microsoft Word seems to accept one, but not the other. Even as I type this, there are mechanical arguments about which words do and do not belong. Oh, and for those who are still inclined to defend the inclusion of ‘amazeballs’ as a word, Oxford didn’t have ‘grody’ listed as a word. ‘Grody’, slang that it is, has been a part of common vernacular for decades. If it doesn’t make the cut, then you can’t put in ‘amazeballs’ no matter how hip you want to look.

Back to the subject at hand. I have one more definition to spar with before I move on. We’ll go with Merriam-Webster this time.

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

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

Talk about hedging your bets. Rather than misuse, it is ‘instead’ pure hyperbole. ‘But’ it ‘often’ is used when it isn’t ‘necessary’. Come on, MW, take a stand. Then again, due to the humor of another definition I discovered in pursuit of this pedantic post, I’ll forgive MW for the wishy washy half defense of virtual ‘literally’.

I was going to make the complaint that the dictionary has allowed virtual ‘literally’, but it won’t bend on the point that the ‘e’ in ‘forte’ is not to be pronounced. That’s what I had been told on more than one occasion. Before making that complaint, I looked it up, just in case the silent ‘e’ ‘forte’ people weren’t speaking for the dictionary. As it turns out, ‘forte’ has several Merriam Webster approved pronunciations, so I’m glad I checked. I’d hate to be wrong on someone else’s behalf.

‘Forte’ is “one’s strong point”. But how do you say it? I have to hand it to whoever at Merriam Webster addressed the varying pronunciations.

In forte we have a word derived from French that in its “strong point” sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated \fȯr-tā\ and \fȯr-tē\ because they reflect the influence of the Italian derived forte. Their recommended pronunciation \fȯrt\, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word le fort and would pronounce it more similar to English for. So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however.

Someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.” This is the dictionary telling you that no matter how you say it, you’ll piss someone off. Along with exhibiting a sense of humor, this admits that there are varying opinions on word usage. Merriam Webster, in an inspiring moment of clarity, has confessed that while they have an opinion, that opinion doesn’t speak for everyone. I kind of doubt that was the aim, but it was a bullseye anyway.

I’ve made my case that dictionaries are fallible things, perhaps even by their own admission. What I haven’t done is explain why this one flawed definition makes any kind of difference. It’s because the word has a definition, a lovely, concrete definition, and there are people who use it to mean something completely the opposite. There are some words that do have opposed definitions. Words like that are called contronyms.

Examples of arguably legitimate contronyms are these : ‘Clip’, which can mean attach or separate. When you dust something, you might be removing dust, but in other contexts, you might be sprinkling something on. Something that is ‘fast’ might move quickly, but it might also be stuck fast and not move at all. To ‘temper’ something can mean to strengthen or to soften. ‘Presently’ can mean now or soon. Those aren’t opposites, but they certainly aren’t the same. Even the word ‘off’ can be considered a contronym. When an alarm goes off, it doesn’t stop; it starts.

I can accept any of those. I can’t accept virtual ‘literally’ though because it doesn’t add a second definition. It weakens the power of the word.

 “All words are pegs to hang ideas on” – Henry Ward Beecher

I’ve always liked that quote. It illustrates that people can focus on words and miss the ideas they represent. It also states that words are simply tools, which, at first, seems to work against my point. That’s only until you actually examine the ideas that are hanging from the pegs. A single peg doesn’t hold much. An individual word doesn’t typically have the strength to support an entire idea. A concept, maybe, but not a complex idea. Not even a less than complex idea like literal reality. Then again, is that idea less than complex? Massive philosophical volumes are written on the subject. The beginning of that extensive debate is the recognition of the real and unreal. I won’t go poking into serious works of philosophy to make my point though. I’ll turn to Lewis Carroll.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “It means just what I choose it to mean– neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

It looks as though I’ve been arguing with Humpty Dumpty this whole time. He won’t have to fall off that wall if I can help it. He’ll be pushed.

Does the use of virtual ‘literally’ imply a mastery over words as Humpty suggests? I think not. Words are not merely random sounds. Words are a code, a means to explain and describe ideas and experiences. That falls apart if any word can mean anything. Words are tools, and no matter how hard you try, you can not saw a piece of wood with a hammer. You can not drive in a nail with a piece of sandpaper. Using whichever tool you want does not grant you mastery over the tools. It only makes you look foolish.

“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite” – C.S. Lewis

That hit the nail on the head, and it used a hammer instead of a broom or a spatula. Infinitely should typically be reserved for infinite subjects. For similar reasons, ‘literally’ should be used for truly literal, factual examples, not just anything.

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3 comments

    1. God help you if any association with me can help you move up in the world. Thanks though for shining the light on the dictionary’s error. I know how to argue against it now without ever having been ambushed by it.

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