The new Father John Misty album takes up the "people keep misusing the word 'literally' and I'm mad as hell about it" cry and calls its misuse a malapropism. I think of things like "french benefits" for "fringe benefits" when I think of malapropisms.

Is there any sense in calling literally a malapropism in the sense that, as dictionary.com defines it, it's a "ridiculous misuse of a word"? Does "ridiculous" imply constant misuse and blatant disregard for the word's meaning, as people are wont to claim is occurring with literally?

  • It's just hyperbole. But classifying words into categories is fraught with being primarily-opinion-based. Feb 13, 2015 at 13:29
  • I see the hyperbole, but I'm asking if malapropisms can be ridiculous for other reasons than the typical mis-hearing examples you normally see.
    – tylerharms
    Feb 13, 2015 at 13:49
  • Perhaps they mean literal in a metaphorical sense? ^_^
    – Robusto
    Feb 13, 2015 at 13:54
  • 4
    A 'malapropism' involves, according to all the dictionaries I've checked in, using word A when word alpha was intended. 'Catachresis' is a broader term (1. The misapplication of a word or phrase, as the use of blatant to mean "flagrant." 2. The use of a strained figure of speech, such as a mixed metaphor.) [AHDEL]. However, as Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 says, there will always be arguments about whether 'blatant' has / has yet neologised into a synonym of 'flagrant', 'literally' into a synonym of 'absolutely' (and in which registers). Feb 13, 2015 at 13:54
  • Mrs. Malaprop would literally never have produced it, so that settles the matter. Feb 13, 2015 at 16:16

5 Answers 5


The use of literally to add emphasis has a long tradition going back at least as far as the 1800s. LanguageLog discusses the topic here.

Consider how the entry for literally in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage analyzes the semantic drift of literally. This narrative, which is not as well known as it deserves to be, follows the Oxford English Dictionary's entry through four stages.

The first … means "in a literal manner; word for word": the passage was translated literally. The second … means "in a literal way": some people interpret the Bible literally. The third … could be defined "actually" or "really" and is used to add emphasis. It seems to be of literary origin. […] The purpose of the adverb in [these] instances is to add emphasis to the following word or phrase, which is intended in a literal sense. The [fourth,] hyperbolic use comes from placing the same intensifier in front of some figurative word or phrase which cannot be taken literally.

LanguageLog then documents how the fourth sense, which is hyperbole, seems to be related to an older tradition of using almost literally instead of just literally

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1834: Into the Hofrath's Institute , with its extraordinary schemes, and machinery of Corresponding Boards and the like, we shall not so much as glance. Enough for us to understand that Heuschrecke is a disciple of Malthus; and so zealous for the doctrine, that his zeal almost literally eats him up.

The use of literally to mean almost literally or interpret the next non-literal phrase to the highest degree that makes sense is at least as old as Dickens:

His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the old fire in the large sunken eye notwithstanding, … -- Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839

So while the "figurative literal", or hyperbolic sense of the word literal may be offensive to some people's sense of logic, it does not, in my opinion, qualify as a malapropism, which is defined as

the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context (M-W)

  • ...+1, literally difficult to better.
    – Misti
    Feb 13, 2015 at 16:14

A malapropism is the use of a similar-sounding, but incorrect, word in place of the correct one; the correct word will usually be apparent to a literal person.

The common use of the word "literally" for emphasis does not involve such a similar-sounding, but incorrect, doppelganger; hence such usage does not constitute a malapropism.


I don't actually think the lyric claims the incorrect usage of literally to be a malapropism. I believe he is saying that along with using literally wrong, her separate use of malapropisms drive him crazy. You'll notice he says "AND the malaprops make me want..." Judging by the context, I can just imagine the girl who claims she sounds like Sarah Vaughn, uses literally wrong, and uses speech full of malapropisms. Hope this interpretation helps, I had the same question as you until I listened a bit closer. Cheers


something along the lines of

She says, like liberally, music is the air she breathes

would be a better example of a malapropism, I agree.


I am not sure I would call it an "malapropism" as much as a "neologism." This is a novel usage of this word. It is being used, as noted in the comment above, to add a hyperbolic or superlative sense to an expression. John McWhorter, an American linguist who has written many popular as well as scholarly works, holds that language is constantly changing in its usage (see his book "The Word on the Street.") This usage is becoming ubiquitous in common, informal speech, at least in the US, so this may be an evolution or may be just a fad. We will see. Language is alive.


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