A Word That Has Been ‘Literally’ Meaningless Since 1769

I like words – precisely placed, carefully sounded words than mean what they should, no more and no less.

Obviously then the current fascination with the misuse of ‘literally’ is something I am very much aware of.

Yes, I’m one of those folk – the kind that grit their teeth when ‘who’ and ‘whom’ are used interchangeably, get irritated when “it’s” is used as a possessive instead of a contraction, and remember that ‘like’ is a word meaning similar, or fond of – not a meaningless interjection after every fourth word in a conversation.

So of course I was literally seeing red when I heard that ‘literally’ now meant ‘figuratively’ as well. It has been ensconced in the dictionary along with ‘ginormous’ as a word meaning (according to the Oxford English Dictionary)

“c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense”

Or to put it another way, the word literally means nothing useful at all – or literally everything, depending on your point of view.

This isn’t the only case of a word being more or less its own antonym. Whilst Bible reading years ago I came across ‘cleave’, which can mean both to stick together, or to split apart. But since we don’t use cleave in most polite conversations, it just doesn’t seem to carry the same impact as literally does.

But there’s an interesting side point – two of the examples the OED use are really old:

1769: F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83 “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.”

1801: Spirit of Farmers’ Museum 262 “He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees.”

Unless the first fellow is eating lillies, and “marechal powder, cravat, and bootees” is code for blood and flesh, we have two ages-old cases of ‘literally’ being anything but literal.

And all this fuss about literally? Literally blown out of proportion. It’s been misused for almost a quarter of a millennium. Or you could argue that since words take their meaning from everyday use (and misuse), that it has literally been used correctly all that time to mean its own opposite.

So we might as well follow tradition, and literally paper the walls with the word. Literally.

I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to make a man literally cleave his mind… in a ginormous way, of course.

The Elements of Style by E. B. White and William, Jr. Strunk (1999) Fourth Ed.
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