“Literally” isn’t so “literal” anymore

This morning I was listening to the radio and I heard an advertisement for a car dealership claiming: “we are literally bursting at the seams, visit web and need to reduce our inventory.”

I thought to myself, “Really? I’d like to see that.”

Then I thought, “Do car dealerships have seams?”

I mean, do you really want to walk into a car dealership where the side wall might burst out at any moment? Do car dealerships carry “seam-bursting” insurance?

Upon further investigation (consulting Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and the OED), I have concluded that the meaning of “literally” has literally been adulterated!

From Merriam-Webster’s:

1 : in a literal sense or manner : ACTUALLY
2 : in effect : VIRTUALLY
usage Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

Oh. So does that make it okay?

From the OED:

1. a. By the letters (of a name).; b. In letters or literature.
2. a. With
reference to a report, translation, etc.: In the very words, word for word.; b.
transf. With exact fidelity of representation.
3. a. In the literal sense.;
b. Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its
literal sense. Now often improperly used to indicate that some
conventional metaphorical or
hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.

I guess “literally” no longer has its literary meaning of “literal.” And if you can follow that, you’re probably as upset as I am. Or you should be.

After all, I am prescriptive at heart!

One Response to “Literally” isn’t so “literal” anymore

  1. gryffinkat September 17, 2004 at 12:35 pm #

    *grins* Thanks so much for writing something about this. It really bugs me too. (I’m often more prescriptivist than I like to think.) Mostly it just bugs me when people say things without (apparently) having any idea what it means. Kudos.

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