The Word ‘Literally’ Has Actually Meant ‘Figuratively’ For Literal Centuries

There are many things that enrage grammar snobs, maybe because they’re not exactly the nicest of people. They hate run-on sentences, the incorrect usage of “your” and “you’re,” and when people don’t know the nuances of the words “effect” and “affect.” But for a long time, one of the most pervasively annoying things for grammarians has been the usage of the word “literally.” People say things like, “I’m so tired I could literally drop dead,” but they don’t actually mean they could drop dead — they just mean they’re really tired. And you can hear the chorus of grammar snobs screaming, “You don’t mean ‘literally!’ You mean ‘figuratively!'” at us average joes who are just trying to make it through the day.

Last week, the below post made waves on Facebook, causing grammar snobs to clutch their pearls at the realization that one of their favorite things to correct — so, so satisfying — was no longer a viable way to let others know how much smarter they were.

But the shocks didn’t stop there! Upon further research, we discovered something fascinating: the definition of “literally” that meant “in effect” was actually added to the dictionary in 1909. That’s almost a century of grammar snobs correcting people and BEING WRONG ABOUT IT. And, according to Merriam-Webster’s daily blog, Usage Notes, it’s not just a quirk of their dictionary — that definition is also in literally every other dictionary known to man.

We spoke to Peter Sokolowski, the editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, to literally try to find out as much as possible about the word.

So the word “literally” has literally meant figuratively for 100 years. Why don’t many people know that?

It’s meant that for 250 years, really. Go back to our dictionary of English usage. It was first recognized in 1909, but part of the story is that dictionary editors and lexicographers don’t invent words. If we put it in 1909, it was definitely being used before then. The dictionary editor’s job is to notice.

I think there’s a bigger story here. Think of the word “vitriol,” which means “liquid that burns” — but now it means harsh words. That word has moved from literal to figurative almost completely. Most people don’t know the original definition. The development toward literal to metaphorical is how language works.

With the word “literally,” it seems ironic because of the definition, since “literally” seems to be its own antonym. But it’s not inversion, it’s hyperbole. The problem is that hyperbole can be misunderstood. A careful writer or a careful editor should be cautious in using the word. It has its time and place. It’s not a question about whether the word can or cannot have a figurative meaning. Of course it does.

“Irregardless” is now in the dictionary because it’s so frequently found in print, but in the usage notes, it says “use regardless instead.” You will be judged by the use of that word, just like “literally.”

Do you use the word “literally” when it’s not literal?

I think people who work with words constantly tend to be pretty careful, so we’re probably a little more cautious than the average person. But I also don’t trust my own language. Ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting infinitives are essentially non-rules.

Merriam-Webster is a dichotomous dictionary that records things across time. The word “literally” comes from the Latin word for letter — which means “by the letter” — and is also the basis of the word “literature.” In the 14th century, “literally” meant “of and relating to letters.”

Do you know the backstory of how the word “literally” came to mean “in effect”?

There are clues in early examples. It went from emphasis to hyperbole. Once you use a word for emphasis, what happens is that the word become subject to semantic bleaching. You’re using it to modify the word, and it removes some of the original meaning of the word. A word like “great” used to mean “very large,” but “great” has become so bleached by frequent use as a modifier that it has eroded some of its own literal meaning.

To say “I literally died laughing” — the important point is “laughing,” and “died” is a metaphor, and “literally” is figurative. Nobody would object if someone said “I died laughing.” People don’t mind hyperbole.

Do you know of any beloved authors who used the word “literally” in that way in their stories?

Charles Dickens, Alexander Pope in 1708, John Dryden in 1687… there are more examples in our video.

What other words do you feel that people — especially so-called grammar snobs — misuse regularly?

I always respect when people make a distinction. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you shouldn’t go around correcting people all the time — it’s just bad manners. Correct your students, correct your children, but don’t correct strangers. Especially if their meaning is clear in their sentence.

The idea is that people should be understood. There’s no reason to call attention to it. If you’re correcting someone, especially another adult, you’re just being a grammar snob. Word meanings erode. It’s not a bad thing. The word “decimate” is supposed to mean 1/10th, but December is the 12th month.

Language is the most democratic social construct there is. Words come to mean what people believe they mean. Just because something meant something originally doesn’t mean that it has to mean that forever.