I have been irked by the trend to use the word "literally" to mean "figuratively."

The most recent offense to attack my brain and ears was someone introducing a series of videos filmed around the world by saying that the viewers would "literally travel around the world" while viewing these!

I have read that through the common misuse of the word, it HAS become accepted for "literally" to mean "figuratively."

Call me an old fuddy duddy stick-in-the-mud, but I have a hard time accepting this perversion of diction in allowing a common misuse of a perfectly good word to mean something completely different.

And, if "literally" is now allowed to mean something for which there is already another perfectly good word ("figuratively"), what word can be used to mean what "literally" really means (or, at least, used to mean).

Must we say "Literally literally" to get the point across that we really do mean "literally"?

Maybe we can blame this trend (partly, anyway), on Rob Lowe's character in "Parks and Rec," who often (mis)used the word "literally" (which he pronounced "LITT-rul-e!")

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    "literally" is not used "to mean 'figuratively'". If that were true, then we could replace "figuratively" in the following sentence with "literally" with no change in meaning: "if the former clause is to be understood figuratively, as Raphelius and Doddridge explain it, the latter ought in all reason to be interpreted figuratively likewise". But we can't; that would give the sentence a very different meaning. The trend is actually to use "literally" to mean "very" or "really" (two words that have undergone a very similar evolution).
    – herisson
    May 31, 2018 at 16:49
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    @sumelic: I have heard MANY people use "literally" as "figuratively"; I have also read that it has now become accepted usage, due to the prevalent and persistent misuse. I don't agree with accepting something just because it has become common, but there you have it. May 31, 2018 at 17:02
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    @Lawrence: But the intensifier view does not apply to my provided example ("literally travel around the world" = "very travel around the world"). May 31, 2018 at 17:06
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    @B.ClayShannon Actually, it does. Although you can’t just change ‘literally’ to ‘very’, the effect is to emphasise the travel; it isn’t to say that the travel was figurative. Or to put it another way, the ‘travel’ is already figurative - literally doesn’t make it so.
    – Lawrence
    May 31, 2018 at 17:12
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    Literally is being used figuratively recently (at least as far as that word is commonly used—rightly or not), but that does not mean that it hasn't lost its original meaning. It's just that it's now acquired an additional sense. blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/08/15/literally May 31, 2018 at 18:04

1 Answer 1


Usually 'literally' means verbatim, non-figuratively, and non-hyperbolically' but sometimes it is used as an intensifier (which is in contradiction to the non-figurative meaning). Standard usage is 'verbatim', informal usage might be the intensifier. Words can have more than one meaning. The 'intensifier' usage has not pushed out the standard 'verbatim' usage so there is no need for a replacement. You just have to account for which of the two usages from context.

I won't go into the possible reasons why this slippage has occurred. It is undeniable that some people use the word in two different contradictory ways and that one way came first. But I will point out that 'literal' is a somewhat formal word. It is talking about words, it is talking about the thing of which it is a part. If you heard the translation of the word in another language, you would have no idea that it was a special word referring to how to interpret other words. But in your own language it says very important self-reflective things. If the exact meaning of that reflection were changed, it would have quite a different implication.

(long diatribe about prescriptivism and descriptivism cut out)

For the case of 'literally' it is supposed to mean 'word for word as stated', as opposed to 'figuratively' which means... 'not literal' any kind of departure from exact literalness. 'Literally' has not switched its mean entirely to its complement 'figuratively'. But sometimes it is used in a non-verbatim way. If for some reason, everyone began using it solely as an intensifier, then we would probably have to find a new word for the old meaning. 'Verbatim' is sort of a sentence adverb, but might do in a pinch. But people who are using 'literally' figuratively are not out numbering those who use it the primary way.

It'd be like people using 12AM for noon instead of 12PM. Noon has been established (by fiat or thought) to be called 12pm. Doing so otherwise might occur, but it is not what anybody who wants to be understood properly does.

  • Note I: The translation of 'literally' in other languages is also sometimes used... nonstandardly. That is, there is a well-recognized concept of a primary meaning of an utterance, called its translated 'literal' meaning in most (all?) languages, and then often people use that word to mean something slightly different, some kind of intensive. This is established in French, German, and even Chinese, where the term for 'literally' is something like 'by the character'.

  • Note II: The misuse (prescriptively)/alternate use (descriptive) of 'literally' has been happening for quite a while. Both Dickens and Charlotte Brontë used literally in the intensive manner. Shakespeare made all sorts of ... clears throat ... errors, both for our time (things have changed since then; we just do not follow all the rules he used to and he wouldn't follow our rules either) and for his time. Is he a standard for his time? He was large, he contained multitudes.

  • Note III: 'Literally' does not now mean 'figuratively'. The complement of a concept is not, or not necessarily, the opposite of a concept. If something is not small, does that make it large? No, it could also be medium sized. The meaning of 'literally' has, for some people, slipped to one very very specific kind of 'figuratively'. It does not encompass all kinds of figures of speech.

  • Note IV: 'literally' is literally not literal. Given the etymology, 'literal' literally means 'by the letter'. And really, when you say 'literally' non-hyperbolically, you use it word for word not letter by letter. Letter by letter would be ... hyperbolic!

  • Note V: Of course if you use 'literally' in a hyperbolic manner, it does sound like you're ... not thinking very hard about the words you're using.

Prescriptively, you should use literally to mean non-idiomatically, non-hyperbolically, word-for-word. And to use it as an intensifier is an error.

Descriptively, some people use 'literally' as an intensifier, but this usage is considered non-standard and will look put of place in formal writing.

  • I wish it were not so but sadly, huge numbers of younger people do use "literally" as some kind of intensifier… to the extent there are T-shirts available hi-lighting their error (That I don't remember a specific example changes nothing) Jun 1, 2018 at 3:24
  • This usage is ancient. The Merriam-Webster video on this usage includes a number of some very famous writers who've used it the way many people disapprove of, including John Dryden, who wrote in the 1600s.
    – Zebrafish
    Nov 9, 2018 at 15:56
  • @Zebrafish It's an easy ---mistake--- semantic drift to make. As I mentioned, it happens in other languages, too.
    – Mitch
    Nov 9, 2018 at 16:08

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