In the OED, are definitions that don't explicitly indicate it is figurative use always with literal examples only, or can they be figurative?

My recent answer has caused quite some confusion among high rep users, apparently because they think that my answer makes no sense, and the OED is listing figurative examples without saying so.


"speak for"

  1. To indicate; to betoken.

    1832 Philol. Museum I. 335 The great mass of evidence that speaks for an intimate affinity between the Pelasgians and the Hellenes.

is this literal use?

  • Remember to use comments to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Avoid discussion in comments. Avoid answering questions in comments.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 21:33

2 Answers 2


The OED is a little inconsistent with how it does things.

In this case the entry is a figurative use of "speak for" (a literal use would need something with a mouth to speak with) that means exactly what it says ("To indicate; to betoken"). Other dictionaries, such as Merriam Webster, do in fact label this usage as figurative.

In other cases, it will indicate that a sense has both literal and figurative meanings, but the entries will be mixed together with no indication which is which. See for example apprehend. Sometimes the figurative quotations will be specified, but still mixed in with the literal quotes, as in the entry for painting. Other times, the literal and figurative definitions are their own entries. And so on.

  • are you sure? can you just please find an example of a figurative quotation that is nott marked as such?
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:09
  • i think you've all confused yourselves tbh! a use isn't figurative unless either it doesn't meet the literal definition it is illustrating, or the definition is so far from the others that it is considered figurative still. i mean, surely
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:15
  • @user3293056 "Speak for" is the example (but if I have more time/luck I will see if I can find another). For now, to clear up any doubt I'll mention that it is listed as figurative in MW.
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:26
  • good spot, but they might well disagree.
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:27
  • 1
    @user3293056 The more I use the OED the more I see it's not infallible. I've seen everything from entries that seem like they haven't been completely updated since the first edition (like the page for "turn" where the latest quotes for most of the entry are from 18XX) to quotes that don't even contain the word they're supposed to be illustrating (can't remember what page).
    – Laurel
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:39

This is indeed figurative use, because the literal meaning of the verbal phrase speak for is more like "say something in the name of, in favour of, or in defence of (someone)", based on the literal meaning of speak "say" and that of for.

So I don't know exactly what the policy is of the Oxford English Dictionary with regard to mentioning that something is figurative, but I suspect they might do so when this isn't obvious.

  • i think you're wrong!
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:11
  • i mean, why would the be that lazy and amateur? it's a pretty serious organization
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:20
  • take e.g. "dog", how could it be more obvious that likening something to a dog is figurative? 1b. fig. In phrases with of-complement (now frequently after the dogs of war at Phrases 11), denoting a person or personified thing likened to a dog, esp. in being vicious, watchful, subservient, or ravening.
    – user99677
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 19:25

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