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For example someone accused of homophobia would answer that isn't correct as he is not afraid of homosexuals. The accepted meaning of homophobia is, of course, a much wider range of negative attitudes, least of them being actual fear.

What would be the term for such a person?

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A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. You don't need to fear homosexuals to hate them. – Carl Smith Apr 2 '14 at 2:32
Actually homphobia means fear of the genus of hominids that includes modern humans and species closely related to them. Or the fear of man. – AbraCadaver Apr 2 '14 at 12:25
“Douchebag” would do it. – Paul D. Waite Apr 2 '14 at 13:16
Not what you're looking for but this kind of over-literal interpretation of language is one of the traits of Asperger's Syndrome. – David Richerby Apr 2 '14 at 14:44
Would "organic" be a more appropriate example? Literally speaking, it refers to things that are made of carbon, but the culturally accepted definition has something to do with food being healthy. – Dave Apr 2 '14 at 15:30
up vote 16 down vote accepted

We do have a term for that: literal-minded, "tending to take words and statements in their literal sense". In earlier times, however, that phrase meant "unimaginative", though I have not seen it used that way for decades.

  • His editing precision was legendary and he was so literal-minded that he even corrected literary quotations.
  • They were certainly Gulliver's heroes, but were they Swift's? George Orwell wrote that when he read Gulliver's Travels as a child, he was so literal-minded as to think so.

Edited to add, the noun form is literal-mindedness (with thanks to PLL).

Stanching An Epidemic Of Literal-mindedness

The above is the title of a news article examining why our government — many of whom are lawyers, who use language differently than the average citizen — does not communicate well with the populace. Remember Bill Clinton and his infamous answer: it depends upon what the meaning of is is.

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And for completeness, the noun form: literal-mindedness. – PLL Apr 2 '14 at 14:07
@PLL - Thank you. I will edit. – medica Apr 2 '14 at 16:59
Thanks. Sorry for the late marking of this, but better late than never ;) – Maxm007 Feb 20 at 20:18
@Maxm007 - Thank you! Better late than never, agreed. :-) – medica Feb 20 at 20:40


People who are pedantic are frequently excessively literal minded.

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I agree that it's a perfectly legitimate usage of the term. My point is not that the usage of the word is illegitimate, it is that this answer does not specify the contexts in which it is and isn't. Not all readers of this answer will be familiar with the word; If this answer is intended to help them, surely you should provide that level of detail? – user867 Apr 3 '14 at 0:37
@user867 that is why we provide dictionary links with the answers. – David M Apr 3 '14 at 11:33
Links can break and die. Would it be possible to copy the relevant parts of the definition into this answer? – user867 Apr 4 '14 at 4:44

Simply the term literal

habitually interpreting statements or words according to their actual denotation; prosaic; matter-of-fact: a literal mind

A common admonition is

Don't be so literal!

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This sounds somewhat like an etymological fallacy:

The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds, erroneously, that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. This is a linguistic misconception, and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology. This does not, however, show that etymology is irrelevant in any way, nor does it attempt to prove such.

However, this doesn't quite fit the bill. The etymological fallacy is about basing the meaning of a word on what it used to mean, whereas I assume you're talking about basing the meaning of a word on the components in it.

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I think the asker is more specifically asking about words that have a modern and technically correct literal meaning, which however mean something different in the context or perhaps as part of a figure of speech. However I may again be mistaken. – Vality Apr 2 '14 at 12:39

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