Go Ahead And Use ‘Literally’ Figuratively

Go Ahead And Use ‘Literally’ Figuratively
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Steven Pinker, the famous linguist who isn’t Noam Chomsky, doesn’t think using “literally” figuratively is all that bad. “The figurative use doesn’t mean the language is deteriorating,” he says in a 2014 interview, comparing it to the hyperbolic use of “terrific” or “wonderful”.

Photo by jmm

“But ‘literally’ is a special case!” you might be ready to comment. “It has a concrete meaning defining truth value,” you might add. So did plenty of other words. The word “fantastic”, for example, first meant something false or imagined. Over a couple of centuries, it gained the metaphorical meaning we usually think of today: “Very good.” But while someone might whine that it’s overused, no one still complains that “fantastic” should only mean “fictitious”.

Pinker says this is just how language works:

It’s understandable why people do it. We are always in search of superlatives, of ways of impressing upon our hearer that something that happened is noteworthy or even extraordinary. And the words we use to signal that eventually lose their meaning.

Of course, it’s much easier to live with a word such as “fantastic” when everyone already agrees on the new meaning. While it transitions, “literally” loses some of its usefulness, which is a pain in the arse.

But there are plenty of other terms — there really, actually, factually, in fact, truly, truthfully are — to convey the same meaning. And human communication involves tools such as context and tone that help us detect irony, informality and generalisation. Of course, all those tools can be flipped too — a deadpan delivery is irony dressed up as sincerity. But that’s what we get for ever crawling out of the sea and trying to relate to each other.


  • The example of “fantastic” is not the same. Words evolve and gain additional meanings, sure – but those different meanings are generally something different – as is the case with fantastic.
    With “Literally”, it’s the polar opposite rather than some other random meaning.
    When a word develops a new accepted definition that is the exact opposite of the existing meaning, it makes the original word next to useless.

    If “fantastic” (with current definition of very good) developed a new meaning along the lines of absolutely terrible – THAT would be similar to the misuse of literally.

    I know I’m on the wrong side of a losing battle here, but I will end up being that grumpy old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn or I will literally start scattering tacks on my lawn every day (Hey – I warned them..)

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