Writing in a recent column in The New Republic on the supposed linkage between the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz, remarks that “these issues have literally nothing to do with each other.” Although he is entitled to his judgment, the widespread use of the word “literally” in contemporary English to mean “actually” or “really” is one of my pet peeves and now that Peretz has made a Jewish issue of it, this column can deal with the matter.
The English words “literal” and “literally” originated in the High Middle Ages as the adjectival and adverbial forms of the noun “letter,” in the sense of a written character, and traditionally they had one of three related meanings. The first was “in writing,” rather than orally. The second referred to the precise transmission of a statement in the repetition, copying or translation of it — that is, in its every letter. The third was the opposite of “figurative” and “figuratively” and was originally used in a theological sense to contrast the simple or obvious content of a biblical text with its hidden or allegorical content; this is the way, for example, that it was used in 1605 by the English historian William Camden when he wrote, “Moses received of God a literal Law, to be imparted to all, and another Mystical.” Subsequently, “literal,” as opposed to “figurative,” came to apply to anything meant to be taken at face value rather than metaphorically, as in a remark like “I was literally scared stiff” — meaning that I was so frightened that I was physically immobilized and did not simply feel as if I might or could be immobilized, as would be implied by the non-literal statement, “I was scared stiff.”
Each of these meanings has had a different fate. The first has long disappeared from the language, having been lost by the early 19th century. The second remains in good standing to this day; if I say, for instance, “I repeated John’s words literally to Mary,” I will be understood by any educated person to have meant, “I repeated what John said to Mary exactly as he said it.” The third meaning is currently on the endangered list, threatened by a new and fourth meaning that has been gradually replacing it — the one we find in Peretz’s column.
This process has been going on for a long time. In my 1992 “American Heritage Dictionary of The English Language,” Definition 4 of “literally” is given as “Really, actually” and is accompanied by the “Usage Note”:
Taking “literally” literally here would call for a very large number of wolves. As the “American Heritage” observes, “literally” in such a sentence, absurdly enough, has in fact the meaning of “figuratively.” And the truly annoying thing about such a usage is that, as a result of it, it is becoming almost impossible to use the word “literally” in the sense of “non-figuratively” and make oneself understood. One can easily imagine the following conversation:
Mary: “John, come quick! There’s a flood in the basement and I’m literally up to my neck in water!”
John: “Hold on a minute. I’m shaving.”
Mary: “Glug glug glug glug glug.”
You might object, of course, that it is unfair to hold Mr. Peretz partly responsible for Mary’s death by drowning. In his column in The New Republic, after all, he is not using “literally” to mean “figuratively,” since the expression “to have nothing to do with” is not a figurative one to begin with. He is merely, like many of us, using it as an intensifier, as in Definition 4 of the “American Heritage Dictionary.” What’s so wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that Gresham’s Law, which states that a debased currency will sooner or later drive a nondebased one out of circulation, applies in language no less than in economics. Using “literally” to mean “really” or “actually,” even if this is not the same as using it to mean “figuratively,” has the ultimate effect of eliminating its meaning of “non- figuratively.” This sort of thing happens fairly often in linguistic history. “Awful,” which once meant “full of awe,” now simply means “unpleasant,” as does “terrible,” which once meant “inspiring terror,” and one can point to many more such examples. This is not necessarily serious, provided that a new word can be found to take up the slack and to replace the lost meaning of the old one. Yet in the case of “literally” in the sense of “non- figuratively,” no such word exists or is in the offing – unless it is “non-figuratively” itself. Which gives us:
Mary: “John, come quick! There’s a flood in the basement and I’m non-figuratively up to my neck in water!”
John: “I wish you wouldn’t speak to me in six-syllable words when I’m shaving.”
Mary: “Glug glug glug glug glug.”