Literally is getting a lot of press nowadays and is the target of many grammar scolds and pedants. What the reporters are writing about and the scolds are carping on is the figurative use of the word, as in “I was literally glued to my seat.” The word literally comes to us, via French, from the Latin literalis ”pertaining to letters.” It literally means “word for word, actually, exactly.” So, according to the scolds, when someone says they were “literally glued to their seat,” it is a pretty good bet that they are not actually attached to a chair with some sort of mucilage.
What the pedants and scolds get wrong, however, is that they don’t seem to realize that words can have multiple meanings. Furthermore, it’s hardly unknown to have words that have two contradictory meanings, such as sanction ("permit" and “punish") and cleave ("separate" and “join together"). Usually, which meaning is intended is obvious from the context, as in someone being literally glued to their seat. These multiple meanings are rarely the source of confusion.
The pedants and scolds also fail to realize that this figurative sense of literally has been around for a lot longer than they think—over two centuries. And it has been employed by writers who are a lot better at using the English language than the scolds are.
Literally dates back to Middle English, appearing around 1429 in a work titled The Mirour of Mans Saluacion:
Litteraly haf ȝe herde this dreme and what it ment.
(Literally have you heard this dream and what it meant.)
This early use is, of course, in the literal, word-for-word sense. There is nothing figurative about it. But by the late seventeenth century, writers were beginning to use literally as an intensifier, but only for true statements. Thus John Dryden wrote in his 1687 poem The Hind and the Panther, “my daily bread is literally implored,” meaning that he is quite truly asking for sustenance every day as he has “no barns nor granaries [in which] to hoard.”
Within a hundred years, however, literally was being put to use to intensify things that weren’t true. In 1769 Frances Brooke wrote in her novel The History of Emily Montague:
He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.
Brooke is quoting the Song of Solomon 4:5:
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
Brooke may be using the word to mean “I quote word for word” or “to use a literary reference,” but she is also employing metaphor, so her use occupies something of a middle ground between the actual and the figurative. But by 1801 the figurative use was being employed without reservation. The satiric book The Spirit of the Farmer’s Museum and Lay Preacher’s Gazette had this to say about beaus, what we might call “metrosexuals” today:
He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat and bootees. The tailor and the shoemaker, the perfumer, and the laundress, must all fit in council, before a beau can take any public steps.
And by 1863, actress Fanny Kemble could write about her successful career in her journal:
I literally coined money.
Nor has the figurative use of literally been employed only by hacks, humorists, and actresses. For example:
“Lift him out,” said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit.
—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839
Tom was literally rolling in wealth.
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876
Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.
—James Joyce, “The Dead,” Dubliners, 1914
And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.
—Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, 1960
Of course, just because the usage isn’t wrong doesn’t mean that all the uses of it are good ones. Like any form of hyperbole, the figurative literally can be overused. And care should be taken that it doesn’t cause confusion. It’s use is not appropriate for all genres. For instance, It is probably a bad idea to employ it in expository prose, such as an academic paper. But in fiction, in informal prose, and in speech there is nothing wrong its judicious use. So, unless you’re a better writer than Dickens, Twain, Joyce, and Nabokov, don’t go around saying that the figurative and intensifying use of literally is wrong altogether.
“literally, adv.” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2011.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton