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Literally is an English adverb. It has been controversially used as an intensifier for figurative statements.


The first known use of the word literally was in the 15th century,[1] or the 1530s,[2] when it was used in the sense of "in a literal sense or manner".[1]

The use of the word as an intensifier for figurative statements emerged later, in 1769,[3][4] when Frances Brooke wrote the following sentence:[3]

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.


The use of literally as an intensifier for figurative statements has been controversial since the early 20th century, when objections first started being raised. In 1909, the following entry was included in a blacklist of literary faults:[5]

Literally for Figuratively. "The stream was literally alive with fish." "His eloquence literally swept the audience from its feet." It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

— Ambrose Bierce, Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults[6]

Opponents state that this usage is contrary to its original meaning,[7] that it is nonsensical for a word to mean two opposite things,[7] that the use of the word literally as an intensifier can be substituted by other words ("‘absolutely", "definitely", "unquestionably"[8]) and that it makes the speaker look ridiculous.[8] Paul Brians stated in Common Errors in English Usage: "Don’t say of someone that he ‘literally blew up’ unless he swallows a stick of dynamite."[8]

Proponents state that this usage has been well-attested since the 18th century.[7] The authors of the Merriam Webster dictionary write: "The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769" and "the fact that so many people are writing angry letters serves as a sort of secondhand evidence, as they would hardly be complaining about this usage if it had not become common."[9] In regards to the objection that literally has two opposite meanings, proponents state that many words are used in seemingly contradictory ways (see Auto-antonym#Examples).[5]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2014, CollegeHumor made a skit titled "The Boy Who Cried Literally", which parodies overuse of the word.[10]


  1. ^ a b "Definition of LITERALLY". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  2. ^ "literally | Etymology, origin and meaning of literally by etymonline". Retrieved 2023-03-11.
  3. ^ a b "The Literal Truth About The Word "Literally"". Culture. 2013-08-18. Archived from the original on March 14, 2021. Retrieved 2023-03-11.
  4. ^ "Did We Change the Definition of 'Literally'?". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  5. ^ a b Curtis, Polly (2012-03-12). "Literally, the wrong use of the word". the Guardian. Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  6. ^ Bierce, Ambrose. "Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  7. ^ a b c "Did We Change the Definition of 'Literally'?". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  8. ^ a b c "Literally the most misused word". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  9. ^ "Did We Change the Definition of 'Literally'?". Retrieved 2023-01-28.
  10. ^ צוק, נמרוד (2014-09-02). "כך תישמעו חכמים בלי ללמוד כלום". כלכליסט - (in Hebrew). Retrieved 2023-03-11.