I'm familiar with the following meanings of legitimately

In a way that conforms to the law or to rules


In a way that can be defended with logic or justification; fairly

(both from ODO)

But recently I have seen legitimately and legitimate used to mean something else. I can't tell if it's just an intensifier, like very (adv) or extreme (adj) or if it's being mistaken for another word, or what.

Below are some examples. Can someone pinpoint this emerging meaning?

TIL some children have such a legitimate fear of math that brain scans actually show their amygdalae (fear centers) activate when faced with a math problem.


This isn't using legitimate to mean a fear that conforms to rules, nor is justifiable, because neither of those things would affect how it shows up in a brain scan. The strength of the fear would affect that.

I look like I'm legitimately scared of food.


This isn't about legality or justifiability because that cannot be conveyed by a look.

I legitimately think whoever designed Yeezys did it for a bet. "I bet you can't design the worlds ugliest shoe and sell it for $2,000."

(Clint Evans, twitter)

This isn't about legality because we don't have thought police. It could be about justifiability, but semantically is seems more likely to mean honestly or really.

While the uses are different, they seem to be converging to a similar meaning. I just can't quite figure out what it is.

  • 3
    The first two are (at least potentially) legitimate. One can have a math phobia, and that would be a "legitimate" fear -- there is a justification (as described by the quote). Similarly, an anorexic may be such because of a fear of food. "Legitimate", in this sense, means "real, and scientifically/medically justifiable". The third case, of course, sounds like garden variety hyperbole, just like some people use "literally".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 20:55
  • 1
    Hot. I just can't agree with what you're saying. You're basically pointing out "there are tortured ways to correctly interpret the first two". You're missing the overwhelming everyday reality that idiots have started using "legitimately" as "very".
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 20:57
  • 2
    @JoeBlow - Then come up with better examples. At least the first case is 100% legitimate. The second is questionable, but only because the context is a bit flaky. And all sorts of words are used hyperbolically, so I see no need to consider the third example above to be a sign of a vast conspiracy (legitimate or otherwise).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:01
  • 1
    @HotLicks "I look like I'm justifiably scared of food" doesn't make sense. You could look like you're scared of food, or you could look like you're pretending to be scared of food, but how do you look justifiably scared? Admittedly you could "justifiably think", but that isn't what Clint Evans is saying. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:05
  • 1
    @Mitch yes, but I think this use is being used to mean the same thing by divers people, consistently. It doesn't feel like a mistake of the "oops! wrong word" type, more "I think legitimately makes semantic sense here, even though Matt Ellen disagrees." If you disagree, please post a legitimate answer. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 23:20

5 Answers 5


Legitimate in your examples means real or genuine.

The example I have linked to is:

It's not clear that the letter is legitimate [=genuine]; it may be a forgery.

This shows the meaning works well with your examples, where people might question the authenticity of the person's action or feeling.

  • 1
    Surely the OP is aware of this (as it says so in the question). I believe the OP is asking something along the lines of "Am I mistaken, or is legitimate now being used to mean 'very'" ... ?
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:00
  • 1
    @Jim no. I would not say something real is automatically defensible. Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 23:09
  • 2
    This seems to me to be the most plausible explanation. When something is "legitimate" it is real, it is recognized by authority, etc. The children's fear of math is real. The person's look is as if he's truly afraid of food. Clint Evans genuinely believes that thing was designed for a bet. Some of these senses overlap with "very" or "truly" or "sincerely" or "extremely". Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 3:03
  • 2
    "Legitimate in your examples means real or genuine." I would say that, rather, as with many slang word fads today (and particularly when a "$25 word" starts being so used) rather than being able to assign a really specific meaning, it's mainly just being used as a general intensifier. As MrShiny points out, the meanings overlap a range; I'd say that range runs from "sure!" to "very" to "actually". But trying to tease a precise "translation" misses the overwhelming "used very messily, more as an intensifier than anything specific" reality. And that's legitimate.
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 13:18
  • 1
    Note that indeed it's almost idiomatic, in a way. (I mean idiomatic in that the agreed meaning is not related to a literal meaning.) "And that's legitimate" is like saying "You can take that to the bank" or is like saying "Church." All three are a general throwaway closing phrase which means something like "the exposition I just gave is much more sexy than anything you have said, also my car has better wheels. So there" Or something like that.
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 13:22

I would postulate that legitimately in these contexts arises from an extrapolation of the concept of legitimacy in a political context. To summarize Wikipedia's entry, political legitimacy is the recognition of some kind of authority.

In this sense, legitimately is used to express the authoritative truthiness of the statement, so it is closer to actual than it is to very or extremely. You could substitute real or actual into your sentences and they would convey the same meaning.


I consider the colloquial meanings of ‘legitimate’ and ‘legitimately’ cited by the OP to be a mix between objective/ly and justifiable.

  1. TIL some children have such a fear of math, in the objective sense, that brain scans actually show their amygdalae (fear centers) activate when faced with a math problem
    (the ‘fear of math’ is real/objective, and it is ‘legitimized’/supported by science).
  2. When seen objectively, I am scared of food (this is an objective assessment of the facts).
  3. Objectively speaking, I think whoever designed Yeezys did it for a bet ... (it is an objective/impartial standpoint).

TIL=today I learned


Your first guess is basically correct, the meaning here of legitimately can be compared to the meanings of very or extremely. As you might guess from the term's more formal meaning, definitely or surely are sometimes a little closer to what the writer is trying to express.

The reason you aren't likely to find this usage in dictionaries is because it is colloquial. There is an even more colloquial version: "legit". That abbreviation is very colloquial, mostly only used by young adults, and never used in formal situations (unless one is trying to make a bad impression).

Using legitimately in such a way won't be looked down upon nearly so much as legit but it's still a manner of speech best avoided. Understand what it means but please don't use it yourself.

I fear there is some danger here of overthinking this. When interpreting colloquial speech you could assume the word legitimate to mean "logically defensible" and the given sentence will probably make sense. But in most cases the writer really only meant "extremely" or something similar. As always, a word that has several possible meanings is colored in by its context.

I'm somewhat conflicted by the first example (TIL some children have...) as I look at it more. As for the guy who is "legitimately scared of food", the overall context suggests that he probably just means "extremely scared of food" and didn't intend to imply that he could logically defend his fear of food.

  • How is "brain scans actually show their amygdalae (fear centers) activate" not legitimate???
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 20:56
  • @Hot That particular sentence in the question is fine, I was talking about the adverbial usage of "legitimately" in the other two but I see now that I should address the first sentence as well in my answer.
    – Aurast
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:02
  • Hmm, Legitimate means "defensible under (the relevant) rules". Consider a dictionary definition and example "able to be defended with logic or justification; valid: a legitimate excuse for being late." I can have a "legitimate excuse" but I can't have a "legitimate fear". What I'd have is a real fear, a fear with a real basis, or a fear that is not just a put-on. I can only see legitimate as having meaning in relation to, let us say, "legal arguments. A "fear" (neither a "house" not a "dog") can be "legitimate".
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:03
  • 1
    @Joe I would consider certain fears to be logically defensible - I would consider fear of something that could cause one bodily harm to be legitimate in the same way that I consider it to be "rational". In any case, I like the comment you left on the question about the reality of how the word is probably being used vs the potential tortuous ways in which the author might be using it. It's actually a more interesting question than it at first appeared but I'm afraid of getting interested in it to an extent beyond what's required by the asker :)
    – Aurast
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 21:29
  • It seems better to explain its meaning as "real(ly)" or "actual(ly)" as described by other answers.
    – herisson
    Commented May 16, 2023 at 23:14

It is true that this way of using legitimate(ly) is creeping more and more into general usage, even though it does not fit well the established dictionary definitions of that word and is sometimes potentially confusing. It is, however, not true that this is a result of the arbitrary choice of some people who are careless about language to use the word as a new intensifier, akin to very. There is a definite, intelligible connection between the dictionary-defined meaning of legitimate(ly) and this new way of using it.

The connection is provided by locutions of the form:

something that can legitimately be called X.

In this phrase legitimately has its standard dictionary-defined meaning ('conforms . . . to rules' as the definition quoted by the OP puts it); the phrase as a whole means

something that can be called X in accordance with the rules that govern the use of such words.

Now, the phrase something that can legitimately be called X is long and cumbersome, which makes it understandable that, in casual communication it got shortened to

legitimate X.

This development is unfortunate, because legitimate X otherwise means something different, but it is understandable.

  • Are you saying "some children have such a legitimate fear of maths" is equivalent to "some children have such an emotion that according to the definition of the word 'fear' can legitimately be called fear when encountering maths"? Sorry, I'm very tired today, so I'm a bit slow on the uptake. Commented May 17, 2023 at 9:15
  • @MattE.Эллен, yes. There is a point to saying that (in the right context): one's interlocutor may think that it would be an exaggeration to call that emotion fear (rather than just just annoyance, lack of motivation, etc.), and one then wants to counter that by saying that it can be called fear legitimately (i.e. according to the rules embodied in dictionaries). This then gets condensed as 'legitimate fear', where legitimate is a transferred epithet of sorts.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 15:56

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