John Rentoul’s latest top ten in the Independent on Sunday is words that have pairs of opposite meanings. Oddly, but delightfully, such things exist. He includes “oversight”, “sanction”, “cleave” and others.
But there’s one I’m not sure about: “literally”.
This word of course annoys a lot of people, who hear something like “I literally died laughing” and get apoplectic because it’s a figurative statement, not a literal one.
So, does “literally” sometimes means “figuratively”? John implies so, as does Stan Carey, who describes the hated usage as “an auto-antonym or contranym” – that is to say, a word with opposite meanings.
The apparent illogic of this might explain some of the hatred, although – as John shows – contranyms do happily exist in English.
At the risk of sounding like I’m playing jargon trumps, I’m going to say that non-literal “literally” isn’t contranymic: it’s heterological. Let me explain.
Consider how a person might express that they did something well:
(1) I was on fire.
(2) I was figuratively on fire.
(3) I was literally on fire.
(1) is a perfectly sound and uncontroversial (if informal) figurative statement. Its meaning is that of (2), although of course nobody would say (2) except in the unlikely event that they were asked to clarify (1). (3) is what annoys people.
On the contranym theory, “literally” in (3) means “figuratively” – giving (3) the same meaning as (1) and (2). But I don’t think (3) does quite mean the same.
“Literally” in (3) is an intensifier. The difference between (1) and (3) is like that between “I did very well” and “I did extremely well”. The factual difference may be unquantifiable, but there’s definitely more emphasis.
Consider another example, of someone expressing that they ran as fast as they could:
(4) I ran as fast as I could.
(5) I literally ran as fast as I could.
Even though both statements are literally true, (5) includes “literally” not to convey that fact but for the same extra rhetorical effect that (3) gives. In these cases, “literally” is doing the same work as other general-purpose intensifiers like “absolutely”, “positively”, “honestly” and “really” – all words with other, more specific meanings as well.
The key thing is not that “literally” sometimes means “figuratively”, as a contranym. Rather, it is sometimes used figuratively. It can be heterological.
A heterological word is one that doesn’t describe itself (e.g. monosyllabic, rare, adjective, French, long), while an autological word does describe itself (e.g. pentasyllabic, common, noun, English, short).
So when “literally” is used non-literally, as in (3) or (5), it’s heterological. While this may have a paradoxical air, there’s nothing illogical about the idea.
I may be stretching the concept a bit: as far as I can tell, under the normal definition, a word is either heterological or it isn’t. But my take on “literally” is that some uses of it are heterological and others aren’t. It’s like “quiet” – you can use it quietly or loudly. (If there’s an accepted term for this, I’d love to know it.)
Some real examples
A while ago, I googled “I literally” and copied down some of the results to see if I could categorise them. This is what I got:
- i literally think about you 24/7
- I literally know nothing about beans
- I literally cry every time I look at my own profile picture
- I literally felt that I was on another planet, then I realised I wasn’t Nick Clegg
These are (almost?) certainly not literally true, as their exaggerated character seems clear. So the “literally”s here would be general intensifiers.
- I literally raised the cash overnight to purchase a used $4000 forklift
- I literally laughed out loud to myself after reading about “management” forgoing their salaries for stock
- I Literally Have Learned Nothing In That Class
- I literally cried over shoes today
These I found unclear (at least, out of context): they may well be literally true statements that use “literally” to signal that fact (the universally approved use of the word), or they may be exaggerations like group 1. They look much likelier to be literally true than group 1, but that doesn’t mean they are.
It’s this sort of uncertainty that makes a lot of people think non-literal “literally” is a bad thing for the language.
- I literally hate this
- I literally am not funny
- I literally don’t care at all
- I literally despise this game
These probably are literally true, but the nature of the claims is so ordinary that there seems no need to assert literality; in which case, the “literally”s would be general intensifiers as per group 1.
- It felt like I literally tripped over my own balls
- I literally almost spit my drink out
These I found particularly interesting. They’re statements of non-events, making it explicit that there was no tripping and no spitting. Given that for hypotheticals, the literal/figurative distinction doesn’t arise, in these two the “literally”s could only be general intensifiers for emphasis.
My own policy on non-literal “literally” is to avoid it except humorously or in informal contexts. I think the dislike of it is widespread enough to make it more trouble than it’s worth.