The Grammarphobia Blog

Actually, we’re guilty too!

Q: From listening to radio interviews, TV shows, and everyday conversations, it’s apparent that “actually” has left “absolutely” in the proverbial dust as the most overused—and unnecessarily used—word. Yikes!

A: Yes, we’ve noticed too. And actually (oops!), we’re guilty of this ourselves.

It’s become something of a verbal tic for us, one we hope to get rid of. Perhaps a look into the word’s history will make us more aware of it in our speech.

“Actually” (along with “absolutely,” which we’ve written about before on the blog) is, as you point out, an extremely overused adverb.

As used today, “actually” often has no particular meaning. But this wasn’t always the case.

The word came into English in the 15th century as an adverb based on the adjective “actual,” which had entered the language in the previous century.

In those days, “actual” had a literal meaning: pertaining to acts or deeds.

It was adopted from the French actuel, which in turn came from the late Latin actualis (“of or pertaining to action”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

At first, “actually” also had a literal meaning, one having to do with acts and action.

In its first recorded use, in Sir Thomas Malory’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur (1470-85), it meant “actively” or “energetically.”

Here’s the quotation: “Then on foot they drew their swords, and did full actually.”  

In the 1500s, according to the OED, the word was used to mean “with deeds” or “in a way that is characterized by doing.”

Thomas Hobbes used the word in this sense in his Leviathan (1651): “Christ shall come … to judge the world, and actually to governe his owne people.”

Those literal meanings of “actual” and “actually” were eventually eclipsed and are now obsolete.

In the mid-16th century, people began using “actual” to mean “existing in act or fact,” or “real” (as opposed to “potential” or “ideal,” for example).

And in the 17th and 18th centuries, they began using “actually” in a similar way, to mean “as a present fact,” and consequently “in fact” or “in truth.”

Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “actually” was first used in another sense: “added to vouch for statements which seem surprising, incredible, or exaggerated.”

For instance, Fanny Kemble writes in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (1863): “This woman actually imagines that there will be no slaves in heaven.”

Meanwhile, “actual” came to be used as an intensifier in the 19th century. It was, and still is, “placed before a noun to emphasize its exact or particular identity,” often in a weakened sense to mean something like “precise” or “exact.”

Mark Twain first used “actual” this way in The Innocents Abroad (1869): “I touch, with reverent finger, the actual spot where the infant Jesus lay, but I think—nothing.”

So “actual” and “actually” have come a long way from the Latin actualis and “action.”

The OED has no entries yet for the often meaningless “actually” that has become so ubiquitous (as in “Actually, I think I’ll have another cookie”). But stay tuned.

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