“Literally” speaking…

Thanks in part to the overuse of “literally,” Merriam-Webster says the word can now mean its exact opposite. Huh?

– Dana Coleman. Salon.com

I remember an episode of How I Met Your Mother where one of the characters gets accused of always correcting people when they say “literally”, but in effect refer to something “figuratively”; of course, I found this hilarious. Yes, people misuse the word literally often, and I liked that they made fun of it, apparently even inspiring a drinking game of sorts, based upon the misuse of literally in that show in general.

But now it seems the joke is lost… Merriam-Webster is listing a second definition for the word “literally”: “in effect, virtually.” So i.e. figuratively means figuratively, while literally means literally and figuratively.

So basically, if I say “I will literally burn my paycheck out of spite” people will be right to interpret it as “I will literally burn my paycheck out of spite, figuratively”, while if I say this – as a testimony to my much enjoyed insanity – I meant to say “I literally will burn my paycheck out of spike, literally” though of course that leaves ambiguity as well (think “I will literally burn my paycheck out of spite, literally; in a figurative sense”). Point being, I should say “I literally will burn my paycheck out of spite, literally; in a literal sense, which should not be interpreted in a figurative way”; am I over-thinking this? Probably, but I still do have a point, literally.

While I have been accused of deriding the degeneration of the written language (I mean, there is no need whatsoever to use text message originated contractions on anything else than text messages; there literally isn’t, literally, literally, in a completely literal meaning of literally…) I do accept that language evolves and changes over time; words fall out of use, new terms are entered into the lexicon, borrowings from other languages are natural in a more globalised environment. This, however, literally doesn’t make any sense to me…


Literally. Merriam-Webster.com (n.d.). Retrieved 2013-08-27.

Piombino, Kristin. Dictionaries add informal definition of “literally”. PR Daily (2013-08-15). Retrieved 2013-08-27.

Coleman, Dana. According to the dictionary, “literally” now also means “figuratively”. Salon (2013-08-22). Retrieved 2013-08-27.


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