literally

Jeremy in Zits is literally surrounded by intensives:

Intensive literally is high on the list of language peeves, eliciting venom from all sides, on the grounds that it makes literally ambiguous — ambiguous in a way that results in confusion. Not that Jeremy was actually confused about what his friends were saying; he was just, in the manner of word ragers, pig-headedly refusing to accept the evidence (all around him) of how people are using the word (and flagrantly indulging in the Etymological Fallacy).

A spectrum of lexicographic advice on intensive literally: first, from OED2 (1989):

3. b. Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense.

Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense. (So, e.g., in quot. 1863.)

There are cites for the older sense from 1687, and for intensive (or hyperbolic) uses from 1863 (126 years before OED2 appeared) on:

1863    F. A. Kemble Jrnl. Resid. Georgian Plantation 105   For the last four years..I literally coined money.

1906    Westm. Gaz. 15 Nov. 2/1   Mr. Chamberlain literally bubbled over with gratitude.

1960    V. Nabokov Invitation to Beheading iii. 31   And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.

(More of the OED‘s cites are probably intensive, but it’s hard to tell without more context.) There’s even a peeve:

1922   R. Macaulay Mystery at Geneva xiv. 72  The things ‘they’ say! They even say..that ‘literally’ bears the same meaning as ‘metaphorically’ (‘she was literally a mother to him,’ they will say).

So on the evidence of the OED, the intensive use has been around for a long time, and so has peeving about it. But the OED still calls it improper.

(Note that really and truly had developed intensive uses by 200 years ago. The semantic development of literally is entirely parallel.)

Staying in the Oxford family, we go now to NOAD2 (2005), where intensive literally is no longer treated as incorrect, but is confined to informal use, in the main entry:

informal used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true; I have received literally thousands of letters.

and in a usage note that begins by describing the older (“standard”) use, ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a nonliteral or exaggerated sense’, and goes on:

In recent years, an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect: they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentionally humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal English.

I suspect that the qualifier “in recent years” embodies both the Recency and the Frequency Illusions, and I think that the dangers of unintentionally humorous effects are greatly exaggerated, when occurrences of intensifying literally are interpreted in context. This despite Jeremy’s imagination.

Now on to AHD4 (2000), which has as one of its definitions

Used as an intensive before a figurative expression

This gives an accurate gloss and straightforwardly avoids the nonsense about literally meaning ‘figuratively’ — an account amplified on in a

Usage Note For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of “in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words.” In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example, “The 300,000 Unionists . . . will be literally thrown to the wolves.” The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself – if it did, the word would have long since come to mean “virtually” or “figuratively” – but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.

On Language Log, the most recent posting on word rage about literally is here, where there’s a link to a 2005 LLog posting by Ben Zimmer on the history of literally, with a link to Jesse Sheidlower’s scholarship on the matter (Ambrose Bierce in 1909 was the earliest literally peever Sheidlower unearthed, though the intensive was used by any number of standard authors throughout the 19th century).

One Response to “literally”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now on Language Log:

    ML, 3/6/11: They almost non-metaphorically never complain about this! (link)

    ML, 3/6/11: “… may literally be said …” (link)

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