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Literally screaming with excitement

Aug 24, 2012

We have long been aware of the use of 'literally' to give emphasis to what follows. The definition in the dictionary that covers this is:

3. (an intensifier)
a. (applied to a literal meaning): literally screaming with excitement.
b. (applied to a figurative meaning): *AMANDA VANSTONE: But I can assure you we are literally bending over backwards to take into account the concerns raised by colleagues –ABC ONLINE, 2006

We tried to show the connection between the two uses, the first of which is acceptable while the second is not.  We also, rather mischievously, enjoyed the illustrative example and hoped that the readers would too.  The thought of Amanda Vanstone bending over backwards ...

And so we give a usage note:

Usage: The emphatic use of literally given in def. 3b is regarded by many as non-standard, where the application to a figurative meaning often has a comic effect. However, this usage is gaining frequency as the intensifier is applied for rhetorical effect without any sense of the underlying meaning.

This is not a new usage. The OED also covers it as follows:

c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’. Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

The first citation given is dated 1769:

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

This is another one of those usage debates that has gone on for centuries. It seems that intuitively native speakers of English take this path of unrestricted emphatic use, while those who apply logic to the language insist that it should not be so.

Macquarie Dictionary simply records this quite frequent use of 'literally' but also, and this is important, acknowledges that there are those who will not accept it.


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