The Literal Is Figurative

I swear I was planning on dropping a short post on how the word "literally" has become to mean its exact opposite "figuratively." But that Radley Balko, he always scratches where I itch:

One of the ESPN announcers for the Pacers-Bulls game last night said that in the third quarter, "Jermaine O'Neal literally carried the Pacers on his back."

Quite a feat. There's twelve of them. And they're big guys. And O'Neal has a sore shoulder.

In a book I just finished (based on Bryan Caplan's recommendation and I highly recommend myself), How We Know What Isn't So, Thomas Gilovich addresses this phenomenon in chapter on "motivational determinants of questionable beliefs", communication of facts, and literary license:

Often the speaker's desire to entertain is matched by a listener's desire to be entertained, and an implicit understanding develops whereby the speaker need not be constrained too heavily by having to tell the truth as he or she knows it. In everyday social life, this can be seen in our willingness to grant other people "literary license." We generally have no quarrel with claims such as "I nearly died, I was laughing so hard," or "Those were the most awesome waves anyone has ever seen around here," as long as these claims make the account more entertaining, as long as they are not too incredible, and as long as it is clear that we are "in on the game" - that permission to stretch the truth is mutually agreed upon. One of the clearest testimonials to the frequency with which people grant, and take, literary license is the fact that the word "literally" has lost its meaning in everyday use. Few seemed to mind, or even notice, for example, when Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde defended President Reagan during the 1987 "Iran-Contra" hearing by saying that "the President signed that bill with a gun literally pointed at his head."

Share this

That's a major pet peeve of

That's a major pet peeve of mine. I assumed it was a recent phenomenon. I'm dismayed that it goes as far back as 87.

"Literally" is also often misused as a synonym for "actually" or "really", as in, "Unemployment in Germany is literally at its highest level since the end of World War II." Nobody would ever say such a thing figuratively, so the use of "literally" in its proper definition would be pointless in such a sentence.

In 2000 I heard a television

In 2000 I heard a television stock market reporter say that "tech stocks are literally on fire." I wasn't sure if that was just an observation, or an exhortation to sell.

The American Heritage

The American Heritage Dictionary often has great usage commentary...

lit·er·al·ly

1. In a literal manner; word for word: translated the Greek passage literally.
2. In a literal or strict sense: Don't take my remarks literally.
3. Usage Problem.
1. Really; actually: “There are people in the world who literally do not know how to boil water” (Craig Claiborne).
2. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.

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 long since have 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.

It doesn't bother me.

It doesn't bother me.

I had always assumed that

I had always assumed that the commonly accepted meaning of "literally" was just as a superlative. If something is "literally" doing something, it is doing it "more" than would be implied by saying "figuratively" or with a modifier.

You could say:

tech stocks are on fire (the stock certificates are actually combusting)
tech stocks are on fire (implied figuratively)
tech stocks are figuratively on fire (explicitly figuratively)
tech stocks are literally on fire (they are rising so fast they have gone past being figuratively on fire)

I'm not trying to justify it, as you are correct in the proper usage. Just trying to quantify the colloquial usage.

Just like "egregious" has a completely different meaning than it originally had, but has entered common and accepted usage as something "exceptionally bad" rather than "exceptionally good."

Sports commentators seem to

Sports commentators seem to be the worst about this.
Radly has talked about this one before, but I'll post it anyway.

"Payton Manning is literally shredding the defense right now."

Uh... shouldn't he be arrested for that?