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I was listening to the radio today, and someone said, "The couple came across a literal 'pot of gold.'" It made me think: how do you say the opposite of that? I'm looking for a statement or phrase that lets you know that an idiom is an idiom and not to be taken "literally."

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note many people erroneously use "literally" in the sense "very" while still meaning figuratively. "He was literally flying over the obstacles" - it's still using figurative 'flying' to mean 'jumping'. –  SF. Feb 28 at 10:10
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Note that this use of "literally" is not an error and is not new. Citations go back to 1769. Ever wonder why you don't hear people complaining about the use of "really" as a generic modifier, instead of just about real things? –  Plutor Feb 28 at 14:23
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Actually, in this case, it should be taken literally. OK, it was in a rusty can and not a pot, but a California couple did discover a cache of gold coins on their property. –  Phil Perry Feb 28 at 15:44
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"practical", "logical", "virtual", "figurative", "effective". All imply something that is equivalent, but not the same as. –  RBarryYoung Feb 28 at 15:56
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xkcd.com/725 –  bungeshea Mar 4 at 10:28
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10 Answers 10

up vote 66 down vote accepted

Figurative or metaphorical are my go-tos

Both are essentially the same, as you can see from many dictionaries using one to define the other. When I get home I'll consult a more accepted source than Google, but I'm sure they won't have much to add.

Figurative:

departing from a literal use of words; metaphorical.

Metaphorical:

characteristic of or relating to metaphor; figurative.

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The opposite of 'literally' is literally... literally!

According to the Oxford dictionary, literally now has two definitions,

The traditional meaning:

In a literal manner or sense; exactly:

‘the driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout’

Or, the informal meaning:

Used for emphasis while not being literally true:

‘I have received literally thousands of letters’

So, depending on the context and emphasis, you could say the following:

The couple came across a literal 'pot of gold' when they bought their new house, and found it included a bucket of 16th Century silver coins.

And literally be grammatically and syntactically correct!

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I want to vote this down out of anger at Oxford and English speaking humanity. –  Aaron Hall Feb 28 at 7:57
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...and this is exactly why that is a problem. –  ValekHalfHeart Feb 28 at 8:02
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Your answer's title implies to me that the airquotes are required to indicate the alternate meaning. Unless, I'm reading it too literally. –  JoeTaxpayer Feb 28 at 18:43
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"literally: [...] while not being literally true" Usually it is considered bad to use the word in its definition. I'm not sure what to say when the word is using in its own definition to say that that isn't what it means –  Richard Tingle Mar 1 at 15:26
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This answer is figuratively the best answer! –  mezoid May 22 at 3:46
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"Figurative", "Metaphorical", and "Proverbial" all spring to mind.

Figurative language is a general term describing anything in language that has a meaning other than its literal meaning--this is probably your best bet in terms of a direct antonym for "literally." Note that the distinction between literal and figurative language within the field of language analysis exists independently of the contradictory dictionary definitions. Therefore, I am using "literally" here in its traditional meaning.

Metaphors are a specific figurative construct in which one entity is referred to as another entity in order to describe its properties. In your case, the couple found an actual pot of gold, but if they had stumbled across, say, an extremely valuable collection of ninth century Chinese porcelain, their find could still be described as a pot of gold to explain how valuable it was.

Proverbs are common sayings, often embodying a truth (eg. "A rolling stone gathers no moss"). I'm not sure if this usage is strictly correct, but I've heard it used on numerous occasions (for example, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, whenever the android Data used figurative language, he prefaced it with "proverbial" to explain that what he was about to say was not meant to be taken literally). I believe that proverbial would be appropriate in your case, as "pot of gold" is a universally known saying within American English (possibly British English?), but I do not believe it would be appropriate if you were trying to establish the non-literalness of an arbitrary phrase with no cultural roots.

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This answer would be improved if you explained why these all spring to mind and how they are different from one another, and how you feel they would fit the request. –  KitFox Mar 2 at 12:54
    
@KitFox Is this better? –  ValekHalfHeart Mar 2 at 21:22
    
Much, much better. Thank you. –  KitFox Mar 3 at 11:51
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When you're using a metaphor, you state the non-literal as literal.

"The couple came across a literal 'pot of gold.'"

Would be better said, with emphasis on the metaphor itself:

"The couple came across a 'pot of gold.'"

And that my friends, is the opposite of literal.

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+1. Idioms lose their charm when prefixed with words like proverbial. –  rybo111 Mar 1 at 12:55
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Maybe it's because I'm a non-native speaker, but

The couple came across a 'pot of gold.'

Sounds like a metaphor to me already, because of the quotes, I'd not use any particular term to specify the fact that it's not to be taken literally.

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Actually, in this case, it should be taken literally. OK, it was in a rusty can and not a pot, but a California couple did discover a cache of gold coins on their property. –  Phil Perry Feb 28 at 15:44
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Idiomatic might work, as that clearly states that what is being refered to is an idiom.

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Virtual comes to mind here. The meaning is being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted. Source.

The couple came across a virtual pot of gold.

Semantically, equivalent to

The couple came across what was, in essence to them but not necessarily everyone else, a pot of gold.

Figurative while the literal opposite of literal, is a bit awkward in this type of usage. It's like hitting your reader over the head.

The couple came across a figurative pot of gold.

Semantically, it is the equivalent of

The couple came across a pot of gold that really wasn't a pot of gold at all.

Accurate, but not quite as useful in this construct.

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There are many good answers already offered. I'm going to offer my own definition, which is based more on nuance, than the meaning of the words themselves. In most instances the usage of "literal" in the example of "literal pot of gold":

Adds emphasis to the listener that the metaphor "pot of gold" is meant

  1. to be either not be an exaggeration or
  2. somehow a very close proximity to the literal truth

The opposite of "literal pot of gold" might be a "literal money trap"

In the US, if you want to express that the idea is not in fact literal if there might be confusion, the idiom we add is: "But not for real"

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The money trap suggestion is not really to the point, I think. The OP wanted the opposite of just "literal", not the whole given phrase. –  Tim Seguine Mar 2 at 18:21
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I'm partial to the word abstract, but that may be my programmer showing... >.>

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"abstract" is not an exact match for an antonym. It is more of an antonym of "actual" in my opinion. –  Tim Seguine Mar 1 at 13:27
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Fair point; though it's close enough to be a suggestion, in my opinion. :) –  JoshWillik Mar 2 at 13:36
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I like metaphorical - a metaphor provides a way of understanding complex ideas via familiar idioms. Proverbial also works for the same reason.

I don't think virtual cuts it. It has connotations of 'almost/nearly/not quite', and I want my pot of gold - literal or metaphorical - to be a bit more certain than that, thank you. Obviously I think abstract is even worse in that regard.

I am unsure about figurative. It feels awkward to me: what is a figurative pot of gold? Is it some Platonic depiction of a real pot? An imaginary pot? An oxymoronic pot - a Dr Seussian Pot that is Not? ... The problem perhaps is that figurative covers too broad a range of rhetorical styles to be considered as a precise-enough opposite for literal.

As for the OED: its not the first time a word has been defined with "opposite" meanings - cleave is one that springs to mind. Even so, perhaps this time they took Humpty a bit too um ... literally?

'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.'

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