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I just asked whether dictionaries (specifically the OED) might, for one lemma, state several different definitions which are literal. And there seems to be some confusion about my use of 'literal' there, that e.g. 'speak' only ever literally means to make speech with the mouth. Perhaps because that its most conversational sense, or perhaps because it is the main definition or sense, I'm not sure.

So does literal use mean only use the root meaning of a word?

I thought that a "figure of speech" is something which departs from accepted usage of its terms, but is it in fact departing from primary use?

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    The term "literal" is a contested one. Watch the video by Merriam-Webster editor on the use of "literally" here: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally explaining one objection to the use of literally. In my opinion whether it's literal or figurative/metaphorical seems to me to be quite an arbitrary matter of whether it has an entry in a dictionary. For example the verb lash is given the definition: "To make a scathing verbal or written attack." It has a metaphorical history, but its entry into the dictionary with this particular definition makes it literal. – Zebrafish Sep 5 '18 at 23:25
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    @Zebrafish: But Zebra, that isn't what makes a word literal. What does make a word used literally is whether it is used in "the etymological or the relatively primary sense of a word" (Oxford English Dictionary on literal). – Cerberus Sep 6 '18 at 17:59
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    @Cerberus I may be wrong in my personal dictionary entry theory. But here is how that OED definition is wrong. The etymological origin of a word has nothing to do with how literally a word is being used, that's just simply a type of etymological fallacy. "arrive" etymologically means to reach or land at shore or riverbank. Yet I literally arrive at school. Secondly, I may use multiple definitions from the same dictionary (not just the first one) in a literal sense. I may "pick" to select from a group, I may also "pick" my teeth. Both are quite literal and have significantly different meanings. – Zebrafish Sep 6 '18 at 21:35
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    Also the word "literal" itself shows a potential problem for the etymological argument. If we accept the etymological requirement, then "literal" can only be used literally if it's used in reference to "letters", not to refer to meanings of words. I'm not sure exactly whether we use "literal" literally, it's quite self-referential and confusing for me, but the weakness of the etymological argument to me seems clear. – Zebrafish Sep 6 '18 at 21:38
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    @user3292056 Sorry, I'm not in a position to correct anyone about this. This is something I've thought about a bit, and you and I seem to share the same view. This is just what I've noticed. I don't even know if I'm right. – Zebrafish Sep 6 '18 at 21:49
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The relevant part of the Oxford English Dictionary entry on literal:

...[pertaining] to the etymological or the relatively primary sense of a word...".

This is the normal definition of the word in the present context (the context of classifying the various senses of a word).

So a dictionary may or may not specifically mark a certain sense of a word as literal or figurative; but that doesn't mean that it's literal when it is not specifically marked. The Oxford English Dictionary never said it would mark all non-literal senses as figurative; it only does so when whatever author who wrote or updated an entry decided that doing so might be useful to the reader. It isn't useful to mark every figurative sub-sense as figurative, if only because the large majority of senses mentioned in large entries will be figurative/transferred.

To illustrate this point, I have searched the Oxford English Dictionary for occurrences of the abbreviation lit., which often means "literal". I got around 12,000 results. An arbitrary example from the first page of results:

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As you see, the first sense is marked as lit., wandering away from a physical path, as in from a forest path into the wilderness. The source of the word is Latin errare "to wander". Now, why would they mark this one as literal if all unmarked senses should be literal, as you suggested? That wouldn't make sense. So it follows that sometimes literal sense are marked as literal, while at other times they are unmarked.

Consider also how impossible it would be for sense 1 to be literal, sense 2 figurative, and then senses 3–5 (unmarked) to be literal again. You can see by the definitions and quotations of those senses that they are very far removed from the literal sense 1, as they are no longer about physically moving one's body away from a physical path; they are further removed from it than is sense 2 (figurative). They are more like further developments of sense 2, derivations.

This is the order in which the Oxford English Dictionary normally lists its senses: in rough etymological order (with side-branches). And figurative senses are always further removed etymologically than the literal sense they are based on. Hence the definition of literal I quoted above: [pertaining] to the etymological or the relatively primary sense of a word. The opposite of primary and etymological is derived.


[Additional explanation giving more background and nuance:]

Literalness is relative: the farther back you go etymologically, the more literal it gets. So strictly speaking there is only "more literal" and "less literal". As to where to stop going back, that's up to the person using the word. But one generally doesn't call a sense literal until one has gone back to the oldest sense (of the branch) that is still in use or that the dictionary states.

In arrive, the oldest sense still in use in English is that of coming physically to a place. So you could call that literal, or more literal than arrive at a conclusion. Whenever something physical (like physical movement here) disappears in a derived sense, that's a sure sign that you've arrived at a less literal sense of a word. Whenever both the physical sense and the derived (newer) non-physical sense are both still in use, it makes sense to call one literal and the other figurative when comparing them.

It's ultimately a choice; but the degree of literalness is less relative: pick fruit is no doubt more literal than pick a number. The disappearance of the physical is clear enough. So you may decide not to call pick a number literal, which may be fine in a given context; but you cannot then call pick fruit non-literal or less literal in that same context. Conversely, you can call pick fruit literal and pick a colour non-literal if it suits the context. And dictionaries are all about context: they will call a sense literal as compared to other senses mentioned, wherever it is useful to do so, usually to distinguish it from a less literal sense.


With regard to speak, it seems clear beyond doubt that its etymological and primary meaning is to utter words by emitting sound using one's mouth. It therefore seems impossible for speak to be used literally in "facts speak for themselves".

  • but that isn't the literal meaning of the word 'literal' – user3293056 Sep 7 '18 at 12:06
  • i'm guessing the the note 'literal' means this defitnion cannot ever be used figuratively – user3293056 Sep 7 '18 at 12:09
  • and 5c actually reads "c. Of, relating to, or designating the primary, original, or etymological sense of a word, or the exact sense expressed by the actual wording of a phrase or passage," – user3293056 Sep 7 '18 at 12:11
  • @user3293056: Indeed not: it is, however, the sense relevant to the present context. – Cerberus Sep 7 '18 at 12:44
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    Sorry, but the etymological argument just doesn't work. "the farther back you go etymologically, the more literal it gets." Car has an etymology that derives from the word wagon or cart. That would mean that modern automobile "car" is less literal than wagon/cart "car". Which is a rather strange argument. Another example is "computer". Computers originally were people. Literal computers were people, not machine computers. Now the literal computer is a machine, and a person computer is most likely figurative. – Zebrafish Sep 7 '18 at 22:09
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So, that was quite the rabbit hole I had to dig through to understand this question (as in, two questions deep!)

What do dictionaries regard as literal?

Most people would tell you that literal refers to a specific form of doing something that is in within the logical and factual boundaries of what can be done and was done.

Literal can also be defined as a description of an action or item that is rooted in fact, and not rooted in an imaginative perception. If blood is literally red, it means that factually it has a red color to it, for example. But, wine could be blood, and this is not literal or factual, but, rather, figurative, as it requires some imagination to understand why the metaphor that evokes blood and wine ties them together.

That being said, what you mentioned in some posts ago about words "literally" speaking for themselves is certainly a conflation. They actually "figuratively" speak for themselves, even though we think "literally" because that's what it factually does -> The words speak for themselves. However, words cannot make sound on their own, it requires someone to speak them, so, no, they cannot, literally, speak for themselves. The real question is, do you take the phrase's literal meaning as figurative or do you take the figurative phrase's meaning as literal? i.e. Is it that "speaking for itself" as an action is what literally happened, or that a word speaking for itself is what literally happened? Because that's a figurative action that actually happened, but was not literal, if that makes more sense to you.

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So you have e.g. here

In order to distinguish literalism from overspecification, I will understand literalism as committed to the further hypothesis that the alleged non- literal meanings are not obtained by a process of selection (in other words, the rest of the meanings are strictly derivations from the literal meaning).

And also here

Literal language uses words exactly according to their conventionally accepted meanings or denotation.

So it's up for debate what the term 'literal' means. Whether or not that is satisfactory given the potential for infinite confusion!

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