“Literally” Literally Explained

Let’s talk about “literally”.

The Language Police love to hate the misuse of this word. There is even a blog dedicated to hating it. I understand. I used to be a member of the Language Police myself, but learning more linguistics put me off it. Getting better acquainted with how language really works has turned me into a hardcore descriptivist — you can end a sentence with a preposition, you can split infinitives, you can say “less” rather than “fewer” in most cases and you can end a sentence with “and me” and not “and I”. No problems. It’s fine to start a sentence with “and” or “but”. But one thing still bothers me: when people use words in ways that imply that they don’t know what they mean.

Shouldn’t I then hate it when “literally” is used in expressions that aren’t actually literally true? People clearly don’t know what it means! What other possible explanation could there be, if people are using it to mean the opposite of its actual meaning? Some articles noted how the word now has, as a secondary meaning, it’s exact opposite.

It’s true. Look at The Oxford Dictionary. It gives the following two definitions:

“In a literal manner or sense; exactly: ‘The driver took it literally when asked to go straight over the roundabout.'”


“(informal) Used for emphasis while not being literally true: ‘I have received literally thousands of letters.'”

Looks pretty damning. Has “literally” been reduced to yet another plain consumable, working to make what you say stronger for a time before its impact wears off from overuse?

I’m not sure that’s what’s going on. At least, it’s not the whole picture. All those articles and books claiming it to be plain hyperbole seem, to me, to miss the psychological process behind using the word this way. This article starts to look under the hood a bit, but doesn’t really get there, in my opinion.

Let’s get back to “I received literally thousands of letters”. It’s not a very good example, is it? Personally I would, if someone said that, probably believe they were being literally literal and did mean thousands of letters. At least I’d be more uncertain about what they meant than annoyed about them clearly saying something false. Hardly a typical example of the use of “literally” hated by the Language Police.

The Salon article says:

“My head literally exploded when I read Merriam-Webster, among others, is now sanctioning the use of ‘literally’ to mean just the opposite.”

This is a much better one. It’s obvious their head did not actually explode (then they would not have been able to finish writing the article), so this would be much more likely to trigger a listener’s sense of something being just wrong.

Consider “this is literally just the tip of the iceberg”, referring to something that is not actually the tip of an iceberg. What does “the tip of the iceberg” mean? It means that whatever is referred to as the tip is the only visible part of something larger. “Sergeant, this conspiracy is more far-reaching than a dead politician in a rowboat! The Strongburg murder is only the tip of the iceberg!”.

What’s the difference between “literally thousands” and “literally the tip of the iceberg”? “Thousands” isn’t (usually) meant metaphorically, and “tip of the iceberg” almost always is. The typical, hated case of newfangled literally-use is on metaphors. Tired, worn out metaphors. The kind all writing advice tells you to stay away from.

Consider the lifecycle of metaphors. They are born when someone wants to communicate a particular point or impression not by describing it in great detail, but by bypassing explicit language and using an image. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is at least worth a couple of hundred. A new one works because it’s unfamiliar. The first time you see “tip of the iceberg”, you really think of an iceberg.

Good and useful metaphors catch on. People use them over and over, and the more times you see the same one the less vivid its imagery becomes. Eventually you don’t so much connect “the tip of the iceberg” to tips of icebergs as much as to the other things you’ve heard described by that phrase before.

By the end, we don’t even think of words or expressions as metaphors at all. We don’t think about what they originally referred to and instead think about what they usually refer to. This is a “dead metaphor”, a phrase that, like “multisyllabic” or “jargon”, charmingly refers to itself.

I think “literally” is a half-conscious attempt to perform CPR on a dying metaphor. Looking at it naïvely, adding “literally” to a metaphor means “I don’t mean this as imagery but plain language”. Given this, saying “we literally drove the car into the ground”, “that joke literally killed” or “my head literally exploded” doesn’t make sense at all.

But people don’t say nonsensical things. If it seems like they do, you’re probably misunderstanding them. If we use a dying metaphor like “my head exploded”, what we’re doing is not comparing something to an explosion but comparing it to the things usually compared to explosions. Something is like something that is like something. It has become a second-order metaphor. A metaphor of a metaphor, a picture of a picture. Faded, dry and dull.

So when you want to compare something to an (actual) explosion you want some way to say “this is like an explosion, not just like things that are like explosions”, and then it makes perfect sense to say “literally”. What the word does is strip off one layer of metaphor, in this case leaving one layer intact. If you think all metaphors are first-order, then this would be a very strange result. It would seem the word either does nothing but “add emphasis” (if you interpret is as one layer left) or creates an obvious falsity (if you interpret it as no layer left).

This post more or less takes that position:

“literally modifies an expression that is being used in its (normal) figurative meaning. Here the word has no real meaning. The intention is simply to add emphasis, but the effect can be disconcerting if we interpret literally to mean, err, ‘literally’”

The second-order model solves this. And I have a real life example of the thought process involved: I wanted to say that someone in an argument had managed to sneak in their conclusion by making the other party focus on something else. Searching for an analogy I thought of how magicians perform their tricks by focusing the audience’s attention somewhere other than where the trickery happens. Sometimes we call that “sleight of hand”.

The problem is, we already use “sleight of hand” in this figurative sense. I had hit upon a metaphor that wasn’t new. Frequent use had covered it in a layer of sediment; those fossilized remains of old comparisons had rendered the real image inaccessible, so that saying “sleight of hand” wouldn’t make anyone think of magicians and their tricks any more. I found myself instinctively reaching for the word “literally” to wipe the protective layer away and summon the original.

It’s not rare at all. As I was writing this very post, I took a bathroom break and read a Reddit thread about reading. A comment near the top said that their English teacher is great because she “literally dissects” the book they’re discussing. I don’t think she cuts the books into pieces, but “dissect” is such a worn metaphor for taking things apart and studying its details that “literally” is needed to make us think about cutting into things.

Speaking of Reddit, the internet loves to call people “literally Hitler”, even if they are not Hitler. This makes perfect sense given the second-order metaphor theory: you want to compare someone to Hitler himself, and not to other people who have been compared to Hitler.

So, “literally” does in fact not also mean its opposite. The Salon headline is mistaken and there really is no contradiction here; the word has a clear, consistent meaning and the English language has not been broken. The word means “one layer of metaphor less than otherwise”. Sometimes that means one layer.

Stan Carey wrote the best article on this I could find, and comes close to my point here:

“Part of the problem, I think, is that people keenly want to stress the uniqueness, legitimacy, and intensity of their experiences. Guilty of little but enthusiasm and rhetorical casualness – not evil, or stupidity, necessarily – they resort to bombast and hyperbole.”

See “uniqueness/legitimacy/intensity” as flowing from “concreteness”, then I’m with you.  It’s the concreteness we’re after when we say it. The rest follows.

Knowing what’s going on, what you should do when you want to be literally literal becomes clear. Two layers to strip means two literallies. If you’re out on a ship in the arctic ocean and you see a large rock of ice sticking out of the water, what you want to say is: “Wow, that’s really big, and it’s literally literally just the tip of the iceberg.”

Phrased differently, saying “literally literally” means that we should interpret the word “literally” literally. Because like almost any other word, “literally” can be used figuratively. This is what I suspect trips people up. “Literally” is sometimes used figuratively, but it doesn’t mean “figuratively” any more than any other word used figuratively does.

Phrased differently again: when we use a metaphor we deploy a literal image to convey an abstract quality. When we do that many times with the same image the image becomes synonymous with the abstract quality, ceasing to be a literal image. We don’t want to convey an abstract quality with an abstract quality, as it lacks emotional impact. So we try to make it into a literal image again. By saying “literally”.

In some sense, it’s true that it “adds emphasis”. But not in a general way, in the very specific way of wanting to use a metaphor with its original power intact. It “intensifies” only in the sense that a concrete object offers a more intense experience than an abstract concept.

When someone says something plainly wrong, consider that they might mean something else. Language does make sense, just not always in the obvious way.

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One thought on ““Literally” Literally Explained

  1. Wow, so literally is basically just the dereferencing of a pointer, in this case we have pointer pointers we want to just be pointers.


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