My Photo

The Out Campaign

Atheist Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 05/2005

« Shout-Outs to my Godless Homies! | Main | Only Losers Dine At Le Cirque: The Stigma on Sex Work Customers: The Blowfish Blog »



This reminded me of a column which appeared in the Guardian a few years ago; it suggests that the use of 'literally' as an intensifier may date from at least as early as 1928. Here:,3605,371916,00.html


When I first became interested in philosophy, I was into Ayn Rand. I remember a lot of things she said, but one thing stood out; "words have exact meaning". However I dont think she thought it through because there are some words, like 'quality', and 'literal' and a host of others that seem to contain more meaning than it is possible to know or use without proper context. So now I say, "words have exact meaning within the context of a particular subject."
English words seem to be used primarily these days as a context driven language, we use the same words for so much. If you take the time to analyze everything you hear in conversation, you might become confused by the constant shifting of meaning applied to words. If you find yourself in a context that you dont understand it can be rather confusing.
Good post.


When all words morph into meaning the opposite of their present meaning how shall we communicate?


I'm coming in awful late to this one, but the misuse of "literally" is something I just have to comment on.

Way to go in picking this battle, Greta! People using "literally" to mean "figuratively" has to be one of the most obnoxious things in current usage. And you're right; there's no substitute.

As to what to do about it..."factually" might work, but I don't know that it has quite the oomph you're looking for. When I'm writing and I want to say "literally", I stop to make sure I really mean it, and then I write "literally". If I'm not talking about a literal event, I use some other description.

If I'm feeling paranoid about being misunderstood, I might try to find a clever phrase to add in the next couple sentences, pointing out the real effects that this literal event had.


How about 'fundamentally'


Lots(all?) of languages use 'literally' as an intensifier. Since it is almost always used as such only with the most outlandish metaphors (eg. the stewardesses were beside themselves), the chance of confusion is minimal. It dosen't make sense to use it with plausible metaphors. ie 'I was literally sceaming' still means 'I was screaming', not 'I was metaphorically screaming'.


Both literally and figuratively


This post is beautiful. Thanks for showing a rational response to language change.

The misuse of 'literally' still annoys me. The worst thing is that I catch myself doing it as well, but I've gotten into the habit of quoting Stephen Fry when I do, adding "and I use that word quite wrongly"...

It seems to work, although I still (sometimes even literally) smack myself when I do it.

Kenneth Polit

Thanks Greta, another word usage that bugs me is unique, not the word so much, but the use of modifiers with it. Very unique is BS. Unique is binary, something either is or is not unique. There are no varing degrees.


I would assume "literally"'s historical/core meaning is "as written." "Really" meaning "seemed real" makes some sense; "as written" meaning "evoking what's written..." isn't as obviously different when put that way, but...

Jesse Weinstein

Er, I must have missed something, because "actually" seems like a perfectly fine substitute for your intended use of "literally". For example, "The stewardesses were actually beside themselves." or, "I was actually stomping my feet in rage when I read that."

The C-OED defines "actually" as: "as the truth or facts of a situation". This would seem to work.

I doubt you'll be checking comments on such an old entry, but I did want to make this suggestion.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe/ Donate to This Blog!

Books of mine

Greta on SSA Speakers Bureau

  • Greta Christina is on the Speakers Bureau of the Secular Students Alliance. Invite her to speak to your group!

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Powered by Rollyo

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Atheism

Some Favorite Posts and Conversations: Sex

Some Favorite Posts: Art, Politics, Other Stuff