Submitted by Aadam  •  February 8, 2012

“Literally” in spoken conversation

I am hoping you can help me settle a debate at work. One colleague suggests that using the term ‘literally’ in spoken conversation is incorrect, and that you should use something more appropriate, such as ‘actually’.

I would argue that if I were to mention that I had just bumped into John at the lift, this would typically mean that I had met him at the lift. However, if I were to say that I had literally just bumped into John at the lift, it would imply that I had in actual fact bumped into him.

I would also argue that when speaking with someone if I wanted to explicitly state a fact, for example, ‘literally, all the houses on my road have a red door’, I would use the term ‘literally’ to mean that every door, without exception, was red.

Please could you help settle this debate?

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"literally" means "according to the face value of the words", so if you said you "literally bumped into someone", it would mean you collided with him rather than merely meeting him by chance.

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Have a look at the MWDEU entry, it says it much better than I could:

http://books.google.ca/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&am...

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I'm not sure I really understand your colleague's complaint. If one uses "literally" in contrast to "figuratively" or "metaphorically", then I would think that the common use for it in place of actually is completely correct. I would only object to someone saying, say, "I'm so hungry I could literally eat a horse", since, clearly, they could never actually be that hungry. Even then, I still wouldn't say it's wrong. It's just a little exaggeration, poetic license, or perhaps irony.

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I must side with Hamish here. The adverb "literally" is (and has been) commonly used in English for emphasis and hyperbole.

Quite obviously, no one hearing a statement like "I'm so hungry I could literally eat a horse" will assume that the speaker is actually hungry enough to eat a horse.

But language pedants have a bad habit of putting up such false arguments to rationalize their various peeves.

No amount of belly-aching is going to change that.

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Fine, let's just change all the meanings of words to whatever we like, Hamish and JJMBallantyne. It doesn't matter if what we say is completely stupid. I get it.

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BJONES: "Fine, let's just change all the meanings of words to whatever we like..."

Well, in a sense, that's what does happen in language anyway.

Why don't you explain how the word "fine" took on its meaning of "OK" in your statement above?

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and also if you said 'actually' it would sounds more like you were just correcting someone instead of stating a literal truth

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There are no words in the English language that can only be used in writing, and not spoken. Furthermore, suggesting that there's a rule that states that something is incorrect in a language when the meaning is transparent is a prescriptivist attitude, and therefore bad and dumb.

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JJMBallantyne, to answer your question, the year 1440: "Fyne, or ryght good," according to O.E.D. Jjeff apparently took my sarcasm somewhat seriously, although I will argue with him that the point of this exercise is to defend those words that we wish not to have their original meanings lost. Thus, I can hope that enough of us point out the misuse of the word "literally" so that it becomes used incorrectly less. This occasionally happens in the evolution of words, when a misuse is pointed out and a poisonous branch is snipped. I would argue "ain't" is used less today than it was in the past, for instance. "Irregardless" has been outed as not being a real word, and those using it are corrected more often than in the past. I think JJMBallantyne's observation about the use of the word "Boy" as an interjection falls into this category. If there are enough people who would like to point out that this is in some ways a racist holdover, and should be discontinued, and make the case strongly enough, than it might work.

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The noting of "boy" for servant is common across indo-euro. tungs ... for byspel, garcon (French for boy/waiter); ME knave; OE cnight (which became knight). Given that one would often shout for a servant ... BOY! Then it's not amazing that it became an interjection.

If someone told me that he "literally went thru the roof", then I would think that that he fell thru the roof.

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BJONES, I did take your sarcasm somewhat seriously. I don't always like the direction language takes, but evolution of meanings and usage is natural and unavoidable. If it's any consolation, there is the notion of collocation or context of words. If I say 'x literally means y', literally can only have the meaning you would prefer. But if I say that I literally went through the ceiling, based on the context, the word 'literally', has a very different meaning. If I meant that I truly went through the ceiling, the word 'literally' would indeed be somewhat redundant. On the other hand, ' I literally went through the ceiling' is a dead metaphor and is overused, though I admit I don't have the capacity to invent wonderfully creative metaphors on the spot.

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I say this to that, Hamish..."%&^(*#&%^&#*%" But back on subject, I believe the friend is trying to help all those people who use "literally" incorrectly. We hear them every day, saying such things as "I'm literally dying from allergies," and the friend probably THINKS it would be better if they were to use "actually," but actually they are literally using "literally" incorrectly, and "actually" literally would not be better.

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"Literally" is the new "Like"
Way too overused in spoken language and most of the time unnecessary.
Personally it has like literally got to the stage it drives me to distraction.

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The scandal in Europe over the origin of meat probably does mean that I've literally eaten a horse - a whole one by now, I should think.
But I've never tried to eat one metaphorically. I'm not sure how I'd go about it.

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If we're just going to cave to the "bad language pedants" of whom JJMBallantyne speaks, we should probably close down this website as well. Nobody will care about proper English anyway at that point. For my part, I will continue to belly-ache.
Personally, the rampant hyperbolic use of "literally" is one of my biggest pet peeves. However, the universal substitution of "actually" for that word seems like quite a stretch...

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I agree with JJMBallantyne, language evolves. BJOINES is a bit mistaken. "Lets just change ... the meanings of words to what we like, " simply is wrong. Nobody **changes** the meaning of "literally" to what suits their fancy. The meaning of the word changed long ago through natural evolution of language, not because someone "liked" it. Furthermore, much of what we say **is** completely stupid, but not because we use contemporary conversational English.

That said, I also cringe at certain usage such as "between John and I" and "for her and I", etc., but I have every right to be pedantic in those few cases where I take umbrage.

So it goes.

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Porshe, I very much like your response. Hamish, I sympathize with you, though I find the notion of pedantry as being stupid and dumb a bit strong. There are far "dumberer" and more stupid things in this world, such as recreational and unnecessary warfare, though this is solely my opinion. I have to admit, that as I get older, I take pedantry with a bit of salt if not amusement, if my clichés may be excused.

So it goes.

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I wonder whether the word "really" had a similarly debated transition to hyperbole/emphasis. I would certainly say something like, "Boy, was I mad. I really went through the roof". However, it's my biggest pet peeve to hear somebody say, "Boy, was I mad. I literally went through the roof". There are plenty of hyperbole and emphasis modifiers. If we let "literally" slip away, we would lose the elegant (dare I say literate?) way to express that you had an accidental collision with John at the lift.

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Peter, the transition of "really" was real, but I don't know if it was debated at the time. The earliest meaning of "really" was "In reality; in a real manner. Also: in fact, actually" (according to the OED). Then later: "Truly, indeed; positively. In later use also as an intensifier: very, thoroughly." As far as I can see, this is the same transition that happened to "literally".

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"I would certainly say something like, 'Boy, was I mad. I really went through the roof'. However, it's my biggest pet peeve to hear somebody say, 'Boy, was I mad. I literally went through the roof'."

I'm amused that you would get all huffy about "literally" but yet have no objection to the use of "boy" as an interjection.

Why is the original meaning of "literally" so sacrosanct in your view but not that of "boy"?

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