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Around lunchtime yesterday I overheard a coworker say "I'm literally so hungry right now"

Though misuse of the word literally was always common, it appears in the last year or so it has lost any semblance of its previous meaning.

Is there a better word to use now when you want the reader to understand that your words should be taken at their literal meaning and not as a simple intensifier?

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Syntactically, I don't think it's possible to introduce any other "intensifier" in your example (mainly because so is already being used as an intensifier, and they don't normally "stack"). You could include something like very, bloody, fucking AFTER the word so, but only literally seems to work BEFORE it. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 at 16:10
    
Um… Figuratively? –  kinokijuf Jul 19 at 19:47
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@FumbleFingers 'Literally' can be a problem at times. As in 'Go to the restaurant I told you about, the Korean Meat Balls, are quite literally the dog's bollocks'. (I owe that to Sandi Toksvig) –  WS2 Jul 19 at 20:43
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I am guessing that your coworker was literally hungry. Or was your coworker expressing hunger for knowledge? –  Tim Seguine Jul 19 at 22:12
    
Literally has more than one meaning. And one of them is closer to "really" and "truly" and "very" and "verily" and "actually" than "not figuratively". Whttp://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/really-truly-literally/ –  nomen Jul 19 at 22:44

6 Answers 6

My suggestion would be (for your friend) to just drop the word in such contexts. It's a tic.

In most cases, I think you & your friend will find that (a) it is not intensifying anything anyway and (b) no intensification is needed.

IOW, just say I am so hungry now!

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For a natural sound, you are probably better off using a word that is not a synonym of "literally."

Try "seriously" in its place, or change the order of the words a bit to say, "I'm so [ridiculously|incredibly|unbelievably] hungry right now."

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"seriously" is exactly what I thought of. –  Quincunx Jul 19 at 21:29
    
"ridiculously" is also iffy. It really isn't worthy of ridicule, either. The others are just hyperbolic, which is alright in casual speech. –  Emrakul Jul 20 at 6:04

Literally:

  • Really; actually: "There are people in the world who literally do not know how to boil water" (Craig Claiborne).

  • Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.

Usage Note:

For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of "in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words." In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example "The 300,000 Unionists ... will be literally thrown to the wolves." The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itselfif it did, the word would long since have come to mean "virtually" or "figuratively"but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary.

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I think your second definition suggests why we can't directly replace literally with a different intensifier/intensive. We don't normally allow another intensifier before so (though I suppose you could cite This is really so stupid!"). But in OP's case (which isn't very "idiomatic", imho) I suppose the speaker doesn't really think he's amplifying the word so - he envisages "so hungry right now" as an entire phrase which is being emphasised. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 at 16:22
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I think what the source is stating is that when people use the word "literally" they are not using the word literally. –  Baby Dragon Jul 19 at 19:13
    
This doesn't actually answer the question, it basically just restates it. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 19 at 22:21

I agree with Joseph that there probably isn't a better word for "literally" when used for its meaning:

In a literal manner or sense; exactly

(The first definition under Oxford Dictionaries–not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary–which is currently being scraped for Google's definition of the word "literally".)

As a direct answer to your question, Joseph's suggestions may be your best bet: actually, really, truly, factually, etc. with some reorganization of the sentence to fit them in.

The premise you provide is that the use of the word "literally" as an emphatic replaces its use as "In a literal manner or sense". I agree with you that although this use has existed for a long time, it seems to have become more common. The use as an emphatic is now common enough that some dictionaries have added it (like the second definition in Oxford Dictionaries: "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true".)

However, other words like "totally" or "definitely" have experienced similar transitions in meaning and still enjoy use with their literal meanings. I would like to think that from context the reader should be able to decipher whether the word "literally" is used in a literal, emphatic, or ironic sense.

If you look at the examples given in Oxford Dictionaries for the first definition of the word literally, the meaning is quite clear from context:

  • The driver took it literally when asked to go straight across the traffic circle.
  • Darsana literally means view, in the sense of having a cognitive sight of something.
  • One wonders if he knows where the bodies are buried, perhaps quite literally.

Though I can think of humorous cases where "literally" is attempted to be used in the emphatic sense:

  • It's literally raining cats and dogs outside.
  • You're literally killing me.

I cannot at the moment think of an example where you would use literally to mean "in a literal manner" and be misinterpreted for the emphatic sense. The closest I can think of is ambiguity out of context.

If we take your lunchtime example, the use of "literally" as an intensive in "I'm literally so hungry right now" is clear. In fact, the phrase is clear without context. If we substitute figurative language, "I'm literally starving right now", the meaning is unclear on its own, but again would regain clarity in the casual context of coworkers getting lunch. Although these uses might make you cringe and sometimes might sound silly, I don't think this means anyone has to worry about being misunderstood.

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I would not say that there is a better word for the actual, literal definition of the word literal, but there are a few options that may help you out.

actual, actually

real, really

true, truly

factually

Some of these options may require that you re-organize your sentence in order to properly fit them in, but actually should be a pretty seamless swap.

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When I was learning English we use actually in the same context that literally is used nowadays. I am actually very hungry - note the dropping of so and right now which are also meaningless additives in your sentence.

I admit it was quite a few years ago now. :)

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