Q: I saw this headline on BuzzFeed: “These Brownies Have Literally Taken Over The Dessert Game.” Literally? How about apple pie, strawberry shortcake, and pistachio ice cream?
A: The word “literally,” as you know, means “to the letter,” and that’s the way we use it. On the other hand, that is a helluva brownie on BuzzFeed!
More to the point, writers have been using “literally” in an other-than-literal way for hundreds of years, including John Dryden, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Pope, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Mark Twain.
In fact, many standard dictionaries now accept the nonliteral use of “literally” to emphasize an exaggeration, especially in informal speech or writing.
The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, says it can be “used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible.”
The dictionary cites the author Norman Cousins: “They will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice” (from the Nov. 20, 1971, issue of Saturday Review). We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to American youth.
Merriam-Webster lists this exaggerated nonliteral sense without comment—that is, as standard in formal and informal English.
The US and UK editions of the online Oxford Dictionaries accept the use of “literally” in informal English “for emphasis while not being literally true,” and gives this example: “I was literally blown away by the response I got.”
However, Oxford Dictionaries cautions that this “use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.”
Other standard dictionaries, including the online versions of Cambridge, Collins, Longman, and Macmillan, have similar definitions, with most describing the usage as informal.
However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says its usage panel, when last surveyed, objected to such metaphorical uses as “literally swallowing the country’s youth” and “literally out of his mind with worry.”
Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), which takes the traditional view, criticizes the metaphorical use as “stretched paper-thin (but not literally).”
The more permissive Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage argues that the exaggerated use of “literally” is not a misuse or a mistake, but an unsurprising “extension of intensive use from words and phrases of literal meaning to metaphorical ones.”
Merriam-Webster’s includes such examples as these:
“I literally blazed with wit” (Thackeray, in the Oct. 30, 1847, issue of Punch).
“You’re very kind letter has left me literally speechless” (Archibald MacLeish, in a Feb. 17, 1914, letter).
“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” (James Joyce, in Dubliner’s, 1914).
“He literally glowed” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, 1925).
“And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell” (Vladimir Nabokov, in Invitation to a Beheading, 1960).
Yes, the hyperbolic use of “literally” has a history, but should you use it?
“The point to be made here is that it is hyperbolic, and hyperbole requires care in handling,” Merriam-Webster’s advises.
The usage guide says writers should ask themselves whether the figurative use of “literally” would call undue attention to itself, and “render the figure ludicrous, as was the case when a football play-by-play man we heard some years ago said the defensive lineman had ‘literally hammered the quarterback into the ground.’ ”
We think that’s good advice. And, now, let’s look at the literal history of “literally.”
When the adverb first showed up in English in the early 1400s, it meant “In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
It was formed by adding “-ly” to the adjective “literal,” which showed up in the late 1300s, and originally referred to a letter, or letters, of the alphabet. The ultimate source is the classical Latin litteralis (of letters or writing).
The first citation for “literally” in the OED is from Mirour of Mans Saluacioune (“Mirror of Man’s Salvation”), circa 1429, a Middle English translation of an anonymous Latin religious work from the early 1300s:
“Litteraly haf ȝe [have you] herde this dreme and what it ment.”
That early literal meaning of “literally” expanded in the late 1600s as the adverb came to be used as an intensifier, similar to “truly” or “really.”
The first OED example for the emphatic sense is from a 1670 political tract written in exile by the British statesman and historian Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon:
“He is literally felo de se, who deprives and robs himself of that which no body but himself can rob him.” The medieval Latin felo de se (literally, “felon of oneself”) refers to someone who commits suicide.
The next example is from Dryden’s 1687 poem “The Hind and the Panther”: “My daily bread is litt’rally implor’d.”
And the third citation is from a March 18, 1708, letter by Alexander Pope: “Every day with me is litterally Another To-morrow; for it is exactly the same with Yesterday.”
In the late 1700s, the OED says, writers began using the adverb “to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.”
The dictionary describes the usage as colloquial (that is, informal or conversational), and adds that “literally” here means “ ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely.’ ”
“Now one of the most common uses,” Oxford adds, “although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally.”
The first OED citation for this exaggerated sense is from The History of Emily Montague, a 1769 novel by the English writer Frances Brooke:
“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.”
The adverb has been used regularly in this hyperbolic way since then. The OED has citations from the 18th to the 21st centuries.
We’ll end with this example from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) by Twain: “And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”