Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Literally vs. figuratively

By Anne Curzan
.

 

In August of 2013 there was a kerfuffle on the Internet over the use of the word literallyto mean ‘figuratively.’ It was sparked by a Reddit user who noticed the way Google defines the word and wrote, “We finally killed English.”

Linguists were quick to note that complaints about this use of literallyare nothing new. What the kerfuffle shows, though, is how much people care about the way otherpeople use the word literally.

The Google definition has two parts. The first part defines literallyas “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” The second part notes that in informal use, sometimes literallyis used to indicate that something is not being said in a literal manner: It is emphatic and means something like ‘figuratively’ or ‘metaphorically.’

The Oxford English Dictionaryhas included this second, informal meaning of literallyfor over a hundred years, and experts now date the use of literally to mean ‘figuratively’ back into the 18th century. In other words, this usage is nothing new.

So how did literallycome to mean ‘figuratively’?

Even when people are using literallyin the literal sense, it can be used for emphasis. Imagine someone says, “He literally fell at her feet,” to emphasize that that’s what he actually did. You can imagine someone else hearing that statement and thinking that it is emphatic: He didn’t actually fall at her feet, but he figuratively fell at her feet.

Over time, that’s how the word literallycame to mean ‘figuratively.’

Now if you interpret literally literallyin some of the ways people use it, you can get some amazing images.

I will hear someone say, “I was literally climbing the walls,” and I have this image of them climbing the walls, which makes me giggle. Or, “Her words literally blew me away,” and I think, “It’s amazing you are still here to talk to me.”

My advice would be if you are someone who does not like literallyused to mean ‘figuratively,’ feel free not to use it that way in your own speech or writing. And all of us would do well to avoid sentences where the use of literallyis truly ambiguous. I hope you can also find some humor in expressions where the use of literallyto mean ‘figuratively’ creates (figuratively) mind-blowing images (e.g., the Jan. 17, 2014, headline in Science, “Star-Crossing Planets Literally Strut their Stuff”).

Do remember that words change meaning over time. This is just one example among many. And the use of literallyto refer to the exact meaning of words that some folks hold out as the “correct” meaning is already an extension from the word’s original meaning in Latin, which literally referred to the letters of the alphabet used to spell the words.

The argument that this newer shift in the meaning of literallyis illegitimate because a word cannot mean its opposite does not hold up given the other examples in English (e.g., dust, cleave, sanction). (See Talking About Words: Can a word mean its own opposite?)

So I am here to assure you that the fact that people are using literallyto mean both literally and figuratively does not mean that anyone is literally or figuratively killing the English language.

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.

COMMENTS

  • Tom B. - What does this actually mean?

    I literally blew my head off recently when I learned that irregardless is actually a word that means “regardless.”

    Reply

    • adrian ciugudean - 1991

      I very much enjoyed your article Professor Curzan. I am one who abhors the figurative usage of the word literal. However, I will take as instructive your suggestion. I wish I had a professor like you for English Literature when I was at Michigan. Once again, thank you for a most enjoyable and interesting read.

      Reply

    • Mark Walker - 1986

      Sort of, except that there is no English word “irregardless”. Where you think you want to use it, the proper word is just ‘regardless’.

      Reply

  • Walter Bailey - BSEE (1959- Univ. of Mich), MS (Systems, 1966- Brooklyn Poly)

    I met you first on your Teaching Company course on conversation. I’m an engineer by training, but I have always had an interest in word usage. I have a tendency to first capture the literal meaning of a remark — which I generally try to keep to myself since it is generally meant figuratively.

    Reply

  • Alan Freedman - 1969

    I always fail to miss your mini-lectures on the Alumni web-site (website).
    A quick question: I always thought vs. was pronounced versus. I would correct my children when they would say Michigan verse Ohio State. However it seems verse is now accepted even on Sports-Center (Sports Center). Have you noticed this? Thank you for your great lectures.

    Reply

  • A.D. Maclin - J.D., 1985

    Thought-provoking analysis. And here are a couple of thoughts the analysis provokes.

    1. Anne says, “The Oxford English Dictionary has included this second, informal meaning of literally for over a hundred years….” Er, no. This claim is figuratively a load of applesauce, and literally misleading. We keep an OED here, in our consulting firm’s offices – literally. We have the edition from 1971, with the “complete text reproduced micrographically” – you know, the two volumes that come with an industrial-strength magnifying glass you use to avoid straining your eyes until they cross? And guess what? The note in our OED doesn’t “include” that “second, informal” meaning – except, apparently, to tell you at entry 3.b. this second, informal use of literally is improper:

    “Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolic phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.”

    Now, the OED literally does MENTION this secondary usage when warning you away from it. But the claim – that the OED “included” figuratively in its definition of literally – brings to mind a broadcast journalist who interviews a prime minister she dislikes. The PM tells her, ” I wouldn’t say ‘No’ to meeting with the president.” She reports, “Asked about a possible meeting with the president to break this logjam, the prime minister said ‘No’. ”

    But we needn’t suppose Anne Curzon left out the the OED’s warning intentionally: the professor just may have been reading the same figuratively one-point-type version of the OED as ours, where you easily can miss a word that literally measures LESS THAN A QUARTER INCH.

    2. Another thought the analysis provokes flows from the wrap-up:

    “My advice would be if you are someone who does not like literally used to mean ‘figuratively,’ feel free not to use it that way in your own speech or writing. ”

    OK. And if you are someone who does not like spelling the author’s name Curzon, feel free to spell it Quorzan or Garrison. Who are we to judge your usage?

    Advice like this comes across as Utopian. Maybe that’s because – I confess – I’ve been working in the figurative trenches of corporate communications for a quarter century. Still, saving the world from bureacratese hasn’t obliterated my memory of what I learned doing a couple of degrees in English language and one in law. And metaphorically I’ve kept an eye on the groves of Academe by lecturing over the years at various universities.

    And here’s the deal: in the past several decades, descriptive linguistics has taken over the academic study of English. That means in academia now, you don’t evaluate linguistic usage; you merely describe it. Relativism rules. The study of English could be far richer and more valuable to students if it were more diverse.

    In other words, yes, we may want to know how utterances of a language relate to how our brains or minds work. But that’s only part of what language is about. The world’s chief concern when using English is a traditional one: effectiveness (which UofM’s Prof. Ralph Williams might tell you, if you ask him nicely, is the focus specifically of the rhetorical tradition of Aristotle and Cicero). To make English effective, you discriminate between good and bad usage.

    Yet outside freshman-English classes and programs for foreign students, universities generally have de-emphasized studying the art of communicating effectively in English.

    That’s too bad for recent generations of students. In many ways, how effectively you communicate ends up determining what kind of life you have after graduation. Literally.

    A. D. Maclin, Esq., http://www.bluepencilinc.com, plain English at work

    Reply

  • John Rhoades - 2007(B.A.), 2011(J.D.)

    I agree with A.D. Note that the American Heritage Dictionary recognizes the “looser” use of “literally” as an intensive before a figurative expression. But, Fowler’s quotes the OED re the “improper use” and notes that the word has been weakened by inexact usage: “It’s a case of ‘stop, look, and think’ before using the word in any manner short of its exact sense.”

    Reply

  • Jim Birchler - 1980

    Should we take Ms. Curzan’s recommendations literally or literally?

    Reply

  • Gilbert Sloan - PhD 1954

    I don’t have a comment on the literally/figuratively question. I do have a suggestion that you discuss, in a future column, the matter of “beg the question.” The phrase is misused (according to my understanding) in the current newsletter.

    Reply

LEAVE A COMMENT: