I mean like when someone uses a certain word with more than one meaning, they often say it's a "literal" something. For example: (something I made up)

"John's corporate seal logo for his company has a literal seal on it"

"The sign-in seal for his Yahoo account is a picture of an actual seal"

What is a "literal" seal exactly? What is the usage of the word "literal"? Literal and actual are supposed to mean exactly, so what does it mean in this context?

  • Means it might look like this: images.app.goo.gl/EszwZphA4S88o1ER9
    – Jim
    Aug 2, 2020 at 1:54
  • 1
    If you use a word literally, you use it in its correct, dictionary meaning and not as a metaphor. For example, if I said that someone was literally forced to sign a document, it would imply that it wasn't just by psychological pressure but by someone standing over them and forcing a pen into their hand. However, seal has more than one literal meaning, so it isn't really appropriate to use literal here. Aug 2, 2020 at 7:00
  • Literal is a tricky one. It’s hard to be generic with an answer when the word has acquired its own antonym as a secondary meaning.
    – Lawrence
    Aug 2, 2020 at 10:02
  • In common jargon, "actual" is more literal than "literal".
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 1, 2020 at 11:59
  • The first problem here is that there are two words 'seal'. Homonyms. Next, if (as in the first instance seems likely) 'seal' is the sea mammal here, a literal one needs to get back to the sea fairly quickly. 'Literal' may acceptably be used to single out the 'primary / original English' sense of a word, but not to single out one homonym rather than another. Dec 30, 2020 at 15:59

1 Answer 1


"John's corporate seal logo for his company has a literal seal on it” is not idiomatic; “an actual seal on it” as far preferable.

Literal” = “within the true meaning (or dictionary definition) of the word” – however “seal” has several “true meanings” – it can refer to several sorts of seal – they can be of a metal/plastic/paper/printed ink, etc. or, of sealing wax . Thus “literal as so vague as to be meaningless. However, “actual” usually refers the reader to the most traditional form of a seal in the context, and in the context that you have given, “seal” would be one of sealing wax and embossed with some legend.

That said, the example is flawed as seal could also be the pinniped animal - a seal - or a seal of sealing wax. You will have to rewrite the sentence.



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, as distinguished from any extended sense, metaphorical meaning, or underlying significance.


b. As an intensifier.

(a) In weakened use, emphasizing the exact or particular identity of a following noun: precise, exact.

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