Lee Lorenz, The New Yorker, February 28, 1977
Literally means ‘figuratively.’ Like it or not, that’s the way it is in English, and despite the recent uproar on Reddit and Buzzfeed over dictionaries recognizing the usage, it’s not new—literally has always been figurative.
English is a language so rich in like-meaning words that we can say the same thing different ways. We can even use apparently opposite constructions synonymously. Although it’s stigmatized, I could care less means the same as its less-objected-to negative, I couldn’t care less. Oversight means both ‘watching something carefully’ and ‘ignoring it.’ Dust means ‘add dust’ (that’s what crop dusters do) and ‘remove dust’ (that’s what Swiffers do). Scan originally meant ‘read with care,’ though more recently it has come to mean ‘skim.’ And of course literally means its opposite, ‘figuratively.’
Literalists don’t like this. They want literally to be used literally. But that would be hard to do. Latin littera means ‘alphabetic letter,’ and so when literal appears in English in the fourteenth-century, it refers to the letters of the alphabet, called literal characters, for example, in 1500. But the earliest English use of literally doesn’t refer to the alphabet, the visual representation of speech (called literal speech by John of Trevisa in 1398).
Instead, by some quirk of idiom, literal and literally are almost always used not in literal reference to the alphabet, but figuratively to refer to meaning. Specifically, they signal a way of interpretation which determines the exact, obvious, or surface meaning of a text rather than its extended, metaphorical, or figurative meaning. To speak plainly, literally begins its life in English as a figurative expression. And that’s not surprising, really, when we consider that letters are a metaphor for knowledge.
Let me repeat that, in case you were dozing: letters are a METAPHOR for knowledge, giving us words like literacy and literature. An illiterate might be someone who can’t read, but we're more likely to call someone illiterate if they don’t know something that we know.
Here’s something that literalists might not know: literal is frequently associated with the misinterpretation of language. A literal person, or a literal-minded one, is someone who takes seriously or at face value what is meant either figuratively or in jest, someone who just doesn’t get it. This sort of literality is frequently the source of humor.
More and more dictionaries are acknowledging the extended use of literally. In response, the literally humorless warn that dictionaries are killing English. Here are two Oxford English Dictionary citations showing literate writers using hyperbolic literally:
1769 F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83 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.
1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.
And here’s the most recent OED cite for the usage, which also illustrates the typical, snooty objection:
2008 Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana) 22 Oct. a8/1 ‘OMG, I literally died when I found out!’ No, you figuratively died. Otherwise, you would not be around to relay your pointless anecdote.
Who, I ask you, is ever going to say “I figuratively died”? That’s not idiomatic English, not even in Bloomington, Indiana.
Whatever you think of figurative literally, it’s not the only English word that also means its opposite. Restive originally meant ‘standing still,’ from Old French rester, and now it means restless, the opposite of standing still. Ravel means both to tangle and untangle, to knit up and, as we know from Macbeth, who calls on sleep to knit up “the ravelled sleeve of care,” it means to unknit as well. Fast refers to immobility (“The car was stuck fast in the mud”) as well as speed, and bone can mean ‘to sprinkle with bone’ and ‘to remove the bone from.’ Both head and tail can mean, respectively, ‘to add a head to,’ or ‘to behead,’ ‘to remove the tail from,’ or ‘to supply with a tail.’ And there is sanction, which sometimes means ‘to forbid,’ sometimes, ‘to permit.’ How come none of these paradoxical expressions have the usage critics literally climbing the walls?
And there’s more. Since the 1400s, annul has signified ‘to abolish, cancel,’ but about a century later disannul appeared, perhaps because annul wasn’t abolishing enough. Then there’s flammable. Inflammable always means ‘capable of burning,’ its sense since the seventeenth century. It was joined 200 years later by its synonym, flammable. At some point, the notion that someone might carelessly mistake inflammable for non-flammable, which could prove disastrous, prompted some writers to recommend flammable for the unambiguous incendiary sense of the word. Here’s an OED citation that illustrates the problem:
1959 Gloss. Packaging Terms (B.S.I.) 10 In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution’s policy to encourage the use of the terms ‘flammable’ and ‘non-flammable’ rather than ‘inflammable’ and ‘non-inflammable.’
Non-inflammable still occurs from time to time; though I’d have thought it rare, a Google search brings 1.95 million hits for the term, not all of them relevant, but still, a surprising number that are. The meaning of inflame, inflammation, and inflammatory has never been in doubt.
The prefix un- presents an opportunity for the creation of many paradoxical forms, like unloose and unloosen, which have survived in English alongside the synonymous loose and loosen since the 1300s. Unthaw means thaw. There’s also unbare, unsolve, unstrip, unempty and unrid, all used in the same sense as the unprefixed form. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was common to add un- to words also suffixed with -less, giving us unboundless, uncomfortless, undauntless, uneffectless, unhelpless, unmerciless, unremorseless, unrespectless, unshameless, and unquestionless. Perhaps you could care less, but these double negatives—which are no longer current—were treated not as positives but as negatives, much in the way some people today use the stigmatized irregardless to mean ‘regardless.’
Cleave represents the conflation of two verbs once distinct, whose meanings, ‘to separate,’ and ‘to join or cling to,’ are virtually if not literally opposite. The intertwining of these words, which began as early as the fourteenth century, seems never to have presented much of a problem for English speakers or for usage critics, perhaps because neither word is very common (the participles cleft and cloven are more familiar, though not necessarily frequent in occurrence), and the ‘cling to’ sense of cleave has an archaic flavor that further narrows its use.
Against this extensive background of words in English that mean the same as their opposites, figurative literally seems pretty normal. It doesn’t interfere with comprehension. Even critics of figurative literally understand what it means—they just don’t like it. But their objections offer a fine example of Baron’s First Law of English Usage, which states,
When usage critics complain about a word, you can be fairly certain that it has already become common enough to be considered standard, correct, and a permanent feature of the language.
Finally, figurative literally is wonderfully ironic: what better word to undercut its own meaning than one that deals with the essence of meaning? But not only will purists disagree with my analysis, they'll probably insist my use of ironic is incorrect as well.
Note: You can read an earlier post on figurative literally here.