Literally Metaphorical
© 2013 Stan Yack

I sometimes feel driven to defend the English language against the use of "literally" in a metaphorical sense.

A more precise language guardian might caution me that I'm actually complaining about "figurative", not metaphorical uses of literally. But many others have complained about this particular language misdemeanour:

See Literally, A Web Log, or the thread on "I was literally flabbergasted" in the Collins Word Exchange Forum, or the World Wide Words quote of Frankie Howerd's amusing riff on the obscure adjective flabbergasted.

A typical dictionary definition of literally is "with truth to the letter; exactly"; but more and more it's being used imprecisely:

"The patient's life was literally held in the surgeon's hands. "
(It's the physical organ, not the abstract life that's being held.)

and near-antonymically. or casually as a meaningless intensifier:

"I could literally eat a horse".
(It would have to be an extremely small horse.)

"I was literally out of my mind with fear".
(How would you physically extract yourself from a noncorporeal object?)

Semantic reversals have occured before in the history of the English language. e.g. The newsletter Model Languages notes that counterfeit once meant original, that garble meant to sort out, and that (true to its Latin root) to manufacture was once to make by hand.

But the meaning of "literally" has not yet reversed. The University of Victoria Writer's Guide advises that "in a metaphor, a word is identified with something different from what the word literally denotes", and warns that literally is often used to justify bad metaphors.

Many criticisms like mine begin by assuming that something called literal meaning exists. Modern examinations of the roots of language show that's really not the case, because the meaning of words exists only in the discourse of humans that use them. As the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein succinctly put it: "Meaning is use."

In his Philosophical Investigations and his other later works, Wittgenstein rejected his own earlier attempts in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to use mathematical logic to discover some fundamentally true Platonic meanings.

Language and meaning are not static, as so eloquently stated by Oliver Wendell Holmes:

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.

Over time as our thoughts change, so do word meanings. Usually such changes are gradual, but occasionally they are revolutionary. Up to now no authoritative dictionary attributes a meaning of "very" to the word literally. However lexicographers do not view their dictionaries and thesauruses as texts containing the unchangeable axiomatic foundations of a language, but as living works documenting a language's actual usage. Despite protests by self-appointed semantic guardians like me, the word literally may someday appear in the OED with a (hopefully secondary) usage as a mere intensifier.

Perhaps it's already too late. Jesse Sheidlower, Editor-at-Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, notes the use of literally as an intensifier by esteemed authors from Alexander Pope to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He compares it to other a "Janus words" like cleave, dust, moot, peruse and scan which can have contradictory meanings. Sheidlower's injunction on the use of literally is much milder than my own, advising that you "Don't write silly-soundingly". Strunk and White would applaud his emphasis on clarity.

Natural languages are of course (metaphorically) living things, and changes of meaning occur over time, more quickly it seems for newly coined words with clearly metaphorical roots. The rate of change has sometimes been, at least on a linguistic scale, meteoric. One example is foolproof, which in 1902 was coined to mean "safe against the incompetence of a fool". But just a hundred years later that word's protection has been broadened beyond fools, having now come to mean "not liable to failure" and "proof against human misuse, error".

Language occupies a special place in human introspection, that of an object of study as well as a tool without which introspection would not be possible. Plato believed in ideal forms and ideal meanings, saying that language distorts rather than reflects the true nature of things. Wittgenstein disdained ideal forms in language, arguing that language is private, that the meaning of an utterance is "known only to the speaker, to his immediate, private, sensations". It is true that we speakers of a language share a human existence and culture with many metaphorical links from words to their private sensations, and that the shared understanding of those metaphors provide us with at least an approximate, shared understanding of our common language.

Of course our memories in fact provide us with much more than just a shared language. Jeff Hawkins has written that memories are components in a system from which has arisen nothing less than human intelligence itself. In On Intelligence, he says that the neocortex of the brain is "a memory system that stores experiences in a way that reflects the true structure of the world, remembering sequences of events and their nested relationships and making predictions based on those memories". It seems to me that storing memories of our sensory (i.e. literal) experiences, then relating then to new experiences, can be likened to the creation, understanding, and extension of metaphors.

(Hawkins's memory-prediction framework of intelligence was inspired by Vernon Mountcastle's theory of a single cortical algorithm; see his article The columnar organization of the neocortex in Brain (1997), 120, 701722.)

The brain's predictions result in a wide range of mental phenomena, from barely conscious mental reflexes, to the generation and interpretation of language, to our most creative musings. We remember the feeling of a step that landed us on solid ground, and are surprised when our muscle-triggering prediction is incorrect and we encounter an extra stair; we remember where we left our house keys, and reach out for them as we pass the foyer counter; we remember the grace of an eagle's flight and muse that the music of Beethoven makes us feel as though we're soaring above the clouds; and we remember Wittgenstein's three-word aphorism about meaning when we ponder Hawkins's memory-prediction framework. To Wittgenstein's succint aphorism "meaning is use" we can add the corollary "language is metaphor". (See D. R. Khashaba's reflections on language and meaning in his Thoughts on Language.)

I don't believe that there is such a thing as a literal meaning of words in a natural language. The meaning of a language is rooted in the metaphors of its creation, and learning it requires understanding those literal (and often literary) metaphors.


Stan Yack
Instructional Designer and Softsmith