Posted by: episystechpubs | October 25, 2013

Editor’s Corner: Her hair was literally a flowing river of gold

· In 2011, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added to the definition of the word literally. The new sense of the word is used “for emphasis” and for things that “aren’t actually true,” which is in complete opposition to its original meaning. Today, this is still a scandal amongst grammarians, language bloggers, and others who can’t stand this new definition. People who use the alternate definition now point to the third or fourth sense of the word, as written in their favorite dictionary, and say: “See! I’m right! The dictionary says that when I say ‘It was so funny, I literally tinkled in my pants,’ that doesn’t mean I really did.” Oy vey.

I would like to provide you with information on the literal and the figurative, so you can make an informed choice on the matter. Let me just say beforehand, if you choose to live by the definition of literally as described above, there are a lot of people out there who are going to wrinkle their noses and hand you a box of Depends.

Literally, as defined by our house dictionary, Merriam-Webster (formatting theirs):


1: in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>

2: in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins>

synonyms: exactly, precisely, actually, really, truly

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary. [KC – This is a diplomatic note from M-W to those out there who would like to torture the people at the OED responsible for accepting the second sense of the word into our language.]

Examples of LITERALLY

1. Many words can be used both literally and figuratively.

2. He took her comments literally.

3. He’s a sailor who knows his ropes, literally and figuratively.

4. The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French.

5. The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn’t literally true.

6. … make the whole scene literally glow with the fires of his imagination. —Alfred Kazin, Harper’s, December 1968

Next week: The seven categories of figurative language.


Kara Church

Senior Technical Editor

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

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  1. […] discussion of the overuse and misuse of the word “literally” has come up before here at Editor’s Corner. It is also the topic of newspaper articles, blogs, and even TV discussions. Here is yet another […]

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