Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017...4:30 pm

I Literally Can’t Even: The Figurative Use of the Word Literally

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Jordana Lalonde

Picture this: A family of four sits at a restaurant. The daughter pours over the menu and pauses at the words “yam fries”, scanning for the option to add a delicious dipping sauce. She sees no such condiments and announces, “I’m literally jumping off a bridge if this restaurant doesn’t have garlic aioli.” Her mom retorts, “literally? You’re literally going to kill yourself over aioli?” Her dad chuckles and continues reading the menu, adding, “you mean figuratively.” Her brother nods in agreement. The waitress walks up during the conversation and jokes about the “big grammar lesson going on at the dinner table!”

That girl is me. And on the inside, she is ready to jump atop the table and scream to the world that the word literally has went through a semantic change and correcting people on its usage does not mean you have a better understanding of the English language but rather a weaker one! That those who correct the figurative use of literally are ignoring the simple fact– literally does not mean “literally” anymore.

Figure 1: Kim Kardashian divulging literal plans for murder that we must believe because she said “literally.” Image: source unknown, wild on the Internet.

Linguist Ammon Shea proposes that “there are few instances of usage that that evoke a desire to mutilate more than the perceived misuse of literally … More so than almost any other word, literally has become the shibboleth that people who “care about language” wave to show just how much they care” (Shea 8). Literally is such an easy word for self-appointed “grammar nerds” to pick out of a sentence and criticize. Ben Zimmer proposes that one cause of the specific hatred for literally is that we have learned the difference between literal and figurative meaning since elementary school and therefore “it grates on the ear when a figurative turn of speech is given the ‘literal’ treatment” (Zimmer). There is also an artificial sense of superiority that comes from the purists who believe that their grasp of the English language is so strong that they are one of the few who still remember the word’s true meaning. They believe that using literally as the opposite of its usual definition is a crime against the language, not a gift. My everyday life is full of examples:

“Jordana, you’re not going to literally burn this club to the ground because they won’t play the song you like.”

“Jordana, this slightly cold and congealed Chicken McNugget meal isn’t ‘literally the best thing you’ve ever tasted.’”

“Jordana, you don’t literally think that ‘Beyoncé is literally the only person God would save if he built another ark.’”

They’re right. Of course I’m not literally doing, saying, or thinking any of those things. But that is the beauty of using literally in front of something so clearly not literal—it’s a hilarious juxtaposition. Journalist John Semley notes that “it’s as if something is so superlative that not even a superlative can contain it: ‘I literally sh*t my pants laughing’… Nobody (or no acclimatized English-speaker, anyway) would hear these descriptions and reasonably wonder about the whereabouts of the pants. The meaning is understood as hyper-emphatic. Such forceful metaphor engenders no legitimate confusion” (Semley). I’m not misusing the word but rather using it forcefully to enhance the hyperbolic nature of my statements.

Comedian David Cross touches (unintentionally) on why I love the word so much. He says that “when you misuse the word ‘literally’, you are using it in the exact opposite way it was intended. When you f*** it up, you f*** it up so bad. It’s not like a little goof. It’s not like you said “penultimate” and you meant “ultimate” and you’re off by one. You completely misuse it. And you should stop using the word. Forever. Until you f***in’ figure it out” (Semley).  Yes, literally is functioning as the exact opposite of its usual definition, but that is not an accident that means you should avoid the word altogether unless you’re following the proper definition.

Linguist John McWhorter sums it up quite nicely: “hating on the new literally is like daring a lava lamp not to let its clumps drift into ‘improper’ configurations” (McWhorter 26). The lava lamp is an apt metaphor for the word—not only are the blobs in a lava lamp uncontrollable, they’re really fun to watch. Literally is a fun word when you forgo prescriptive rules and enjoy its hyperbolic power.

McWhorter proposes that literally has joined the list of words known as “contronyms”—words that mean both their own definition and the opposite of it. McWhorter asks “if fast means ‘speedy’ then why can you hold fast and be fast asleep? And did it ever bother you? … The fact that literally can mean both itself and its opposite is—admit it—cool! The way literally now works is a quirky, chance development of the kind that makes one quietly proud to speak a language” (28).

If after all of this, if you still don’t believe me or scholars who have literally spent their entire lives studying linguistics or famous authors (Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, James Joyce, etc.) who literally everyone reads, believe someone who knows a lot about words– Nicki Minaj.

Figure 2: Nicki Minaj acknowledging the hilarity that ensues when “literally” is used. Image: J. Lalonde.

She replied to my comment on her Instagram photo because I said she is “literally a comedic genius”. If I would have said “Nicki Minaj is so funny!”, I’m sure I’d have been left in the dust with the rest of the “show us your butt” comments. Literally.

Works Cited:

McWhorter, John H. Words on the Move: Why English Won’t– and Can’t– Sit Still (like, Literally). Holt and Company, 2016.

Semley, John. In Defense of the Figurative “Literally”. Now Toronto, 20 Aug. 2013,

Shea, Ammon. Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. Penguin, 2014.

Watson, Alex. Literally Ok. Wall Street International, 28 Apr. 2017,

Zimmer, Ben. “Really! Truly! Literally!” Word Routes,, 19 Aug. 2008,

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