Several years ago, I took a sideswipe at “literally” in an entry about something else. John S and Shmuel both gently pointed out that I was wrong to be fussy about it. I never responded to those comments, but I hereby belatedly thank both of you. You were right, though it makes me grumpy.

I managed somehow to avoid getting imprinted with a lot of the standard prescriptivist peeves. For example, I've never had a problem with using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated.”

But “literally,” to my very literalist mind, has always felt blatantly and bizarrely wrong.

This morning, I saw an article in Fast Company that said: “Dreams of legalized marijuana in California literally went up in smoke this week[...]”

Which manages to combine my annoyance over cheap pot puns with my annoyance with “literally.”

I considered dropping a note to the people who run Literally, A Web Log, but then I saw it's been over a year since their last post. (They tweeted more recently, but still a month and a half ago.)

And then I found an excellent article about “literally” by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower from 2005, and I decided to just bite the bullet and confess that I'm wrong.

Sheidlower points out (as Shmuel had done) that use of “literally” as an all-purpose intensifier goes back over a century, used in a bunch of Canonical Literary Works by a bunch of Great Literary Authors. It's the same argument I use to support gender-neutral “they”: if people who are widely regarded as among the greatest writers in English can do it, who am I to say they're wrong?

The Sheidlower article traces the history of the word's usage, from its early use with the meaning you'd expect, through Dryden and Pope and Austen using it as an intensifier for true statements, through the newer use (but still dating back to the late 1700s!) as an intensifier for metaphorical statements. Apparently there were no objections to any of this until the early 1900s.

But the parts of the article that really finally made clear to me that I was being wrongheaded are the discussions of (a) “contranyms” (words that have two or more meanings that directly contradict each other) and (b) the word “really,” which also seems like it ought to be used only to affirm the truth of something but in fact is widely used (including by me) as an all-purpose intensifier.

So my head is now firmly convinced that there's nothing at all wrong with using “literally” that way.

But I am nonetheless likely to continue to have a gut negative reaction to it, alas.

2 Responses to “Literally”

  1. irilyth

    The thing I don’t like about literally as an all-purpose intensifier is that “literally” actually means something, and it’s useful to have a word that means that. I guess there are other words that mean more or less the same thing, and at this point are less ambiguous, like “actually”, for example. :^) But still, this one galls me because there’s a useful distinction here — unlike, say, nauseous and nauseated, in that no one ever says “I’m feeling nauseous” to convey that they’re feeling like they sicken people.

  2. Shmuel

    The problem I have with that objection, Josh, is that you would be hard-pressed to find a case in which the context doesn’t make it instantly clear which sense of “literally” is intended. (If such a case could be found, then, sure, one would have to rewrite the sentence.) The hyperbolic sense is always used in such a way that taking it as reflecting the actual truth would lead to comic absurdity. And if there is no ambiguity, then there is no loss in utility.


Join the Conversation