Literally / Littéralement

Grand Robert

- 1. (1577). D'une manière littérale, conforme à la lettre. Copier, traduire littéralement un texte (- Exprimer, cit. 28). Citer littéralement.

- 2. En prenant le mot, l'expression au sens littéral. Il était littéralement fou (cit. 28). L'habitude (cit. 48) est littéralement une seconde nature.

Absolument, exactement. «Je n'avais plus rien, littéralement rien» (G. Sand, in T.L.F.).

Petit Robert 2003

2. En prenant le mot, l’expression au sens propre, au sens fort. => véritablement. Il m’a littéralement claqué la porte au nez.

(claquer la porte au nez de qqn : refuser de voir, de recevoir qqn)

véritablement 2. Conformément à l’apparence, au mot qui désigne.

Grand Robert

- 4. (Déb. XVIIe). Conformément à l'apparence, au mot qui désigne. - Fait (en), proprement, réellement, vraiment (- à la lettre*). - On ne l'avait jamais véritablement vu (- Dessiner, cit. 4). Les gens véritablement élégants (- Habiller, cit. 18). Occasion (cit. 8) véritablement exceptionnelle. Des femmes plus véritablement belles (- Beauté, cit. 20). - Pour introduire et renforcer une comparaison, une image. «C'est véritablement la Tour de Babylone» (- Aune, cit. 1).


IDNUM       42465

HDWD       literal

IDENT        1* 1

LEMMA     literally

POS  adv

LINKS        Opposite = figurative* 1* 2

SUBJ Language > Language and Literature

EX1   You'll lose marks if you translate too literally.

EX2   You shouldn't take everything she says literally. She doesn't mean half the things she says.

EX3   20 million people are threatened by famine and the food aid required runs quite literally into millions of tonnes.

COL3.1       [l(1,quite)]

EXPL3        completely truthfully


IDNUM       42472

HDWD       literally

IDENT        1* 0

LEMMA     literally

POS  adv

LABEL       informal

DEF  used for emphasizing an already forceful statement

EX1   There were literally millions of tourists in the village over the weekend.

EX2   My boss'll literally murder me when she finds out what I've done.



  1. In the direct, word for word sense. With neither idiom nor metaphor.

When my sewing kit fell off of the barn loft, I literally had to look for a needle in a haystack.

  1. (proscribed) Really, as an intensifier.

The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried.

They both literally slept in Jesus.

Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.

...there is never a candle lighted in this house, until one's eyes are literally falling out of one's head with being stretched to read the paper. a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams...

It was literally teeming, stratified, with the shades of human groups, who had met there for tragedy, comedy, farce...

You literally become the ball in a tennis match, you become the report that you are working on ...

He can literally turn the world upside down with his gift of perspective and vanishing points.

The summer populations of beach communities literally explode, and the local infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, waste hauling) either wear out or exceed their designed capacities more quickly.

He's just that bad that he was striped of his post count at one point, which caused him to literally explode into tears (hey, he even sent me an IM).

 Usage notes

Literally is typically used as an intensifier in one of two ways -- to intensify phrases that are actually meant to be taken literally (e.g. "I had literally no duties or responsibilities") or phrases that cannot be taken literally in the context (e.g. "He was literally blown away by the news"). The second usage is proscribed, for instance by Wynford Hicks (2004, "Quite Literally: Problem words and how to use them", page 131), who writes "Don't use it when you don't mean it, they say. 'He literally exploded with anger' is absurd."





in the literal or strict sense: What does the word mean literally?


in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.


actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.


in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.

Since the early 20th century, literally has been widely used as an intensifier meaning “in effect, virtually,” a sense that contradicts the earlier meaning “actually, without exaggeration”: The senator was literally buried alive in the Iowa primaries. The parties were literally trading horses in an effort to reach a compromise. The use is often criticized; nevertheless, it appears in all but the most carefully edited writing. Although this use of literally irritates some, it probably neither distorts nor enhances the intended meaning of the sentences in which it occurs. The same might often be said of the use of literally in its earlier sense “actually”: The garrison was literally wiped out: no one survived. Unabridged (v 1.1)
Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006.



  1. In a literal manner; word for word: translated the Greek passage literally.
  2. In a literal or strict sense: Don't take my remarks literally.
  3. Usage Problem
    1. Really; actually: "There are people in the world who literally do not know how to boil water" (Craig Claiborne).
    2. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.

Usage Note: For more than a hundred years, critics have remarked on the incoherency of using literally in a way that suggests the exact opposite of its primary sense of "in a manner that accords with the literal sense of the words." In 1926, for example, H.W. Fowler cited the example "The 300,000 Unionists ... will be literally thrown to the wolves." The practice does not stem from a change in the meaning of literally itself—if it did, the word would long since have come to mean "virtually" or "figuratively"—but from a natural tendency to use the word as a general intensive, as in They had literally no help from the government on the project, where no contrast with the figurative sense of the words is intended.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.



Robert Fulford's column about the word literally

(Globe and Mail, May 6, 1998)

Writing in the Toronto Sun last week, Douglas Fisher said that the prime minister, when pushing through the bill to compensate some but not all of those infected with hepatitis by tainted blood, "literally laid on his whip." Fisher wrote "literally," but what Fisher meant was "metaphorically" or "figuratively." We can assume that he did not see a whip in the hand of the prime minister. Parliament uses "whip" as a metaphor to describe several forms of party discipline, none of which involve actual lashing. Fisher's usage, therefore, was incorrect. It was an error, a blunder, a slip, a lapse. It was a misstep. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong.

But here's the curious thing: while using "literally" in that way is a gross error, it's now done so often that there are those who claim repetition is making it respectable.

Recently, William Ginsburg said of his client, Monica Lewinsky, "She's literally in jail." In fact, she was not; perhaps he meant she might go to jail, or meant she was kept indoors by pestering reporters. In March, Gary Hart, recalling that reporters destroyed his presidential prospects by revealing his sexual adventures, said: "I saw journalists become animals, literally." No, he did not mean they grew claws or hooves: he meant they acted badly. Also in March, Terence Corcoran of The Globe and Mail, my favourite business columnist, said that demonization of life insurance firms "is literally the unravelling of the Walter Gordon nationalism that dominated Canadian insurance policy" a few decades ago. No, it is a metaphorical unravelling: in truth, no knitwear was involved. In Maclean's not long ago, Dalton Camp wrote that "In 1957, the Liberals literally hurled themselves from office." I don't think so.

Many years ago I suffered under a boss who liked to summarize a tough business situation by saying, "I was literally caught with my pants down." This left an indelible image in my mind, and perhaps made me more than normally sensitive to the abuse of "literally."

It is now one of those errors that permissive dictionary editors like to endorse. Amiable, friendly Webster's Collegiate says don't worry, be happy, use "literally" as hyperbole if it makes you feel good. (Well, they don't literally say "feel good"--that's my hyperbole.) The American Heritage Dictionary also says it's fine.

Figuratively, the rot runs deep. It would be good to blame this on television, the decline of education, and the moral squalor of the 1960s. Alas, that's impossible. A few weeks ago, I discovered that in the 1940s The Globe and Mail said of its first publisher, George McCullagh, that he "literally hoisted himself up by his bootstraps." And the problem goes back much farther. In fact, our great-grandfathers may have made this mistake as often as we do. (I say grandfathers rather than grandmothers for a reason: apparently, women rarely make this mistake, though the explanation of that fact, if it is a fact, lies beyond the jurisdiction of this court.)

Alongside its definition of "literally," the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary prints a stern warning against misuse. It notes that in 1863 a writer claimed, "For the last four years I literally coined money." No, he didn't: coining literally means making coins by stamping metal. In 1902 the London Daily Chronicle reported that someone was "literally coining money." And in 1906 the Westminster Gazette said a politician "literally bubbled over with gratitude."

By the early 1920s, this bizarre usage was attracting scorn. In 1922 Rose Macaulay, in her book Mystery at Geneva, registered annoyance at certain people--"The things they say! They even say..that 'literally' bears the same meaning as 'metaphorically.'" Macaulay cited an outrageous example: "she was literally a mother to him." In 1926, H.W. Fowler, in his classic work, Modern English Usage, noted that in cases where the truth would require the speaker to follow a strong expression with "not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking," people were instead inserting the very word that they should in such instances repudiate: literally. One example: "My telephone-wires have been kept literally red-hot."

The 1997 Nelson Canadian Dictionary says that, though the error has been appearing for more than a century, it can still produce inadvertent comic effects when someone combines it with "a frozen figure of speech," as in: "I literally died laughing." The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, while trying hard to be permissive, puts its finger on the problem. If we accept the sloppier use, then the word acquires two meanings--"factually true, precise" and "in an exaggerated, hyperbolic sense." Unfortunately, those are roughly each other's opposite. So careful writers will probably avoid both.

No good can come of this, as Fowler said: "Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible." (Was that, incidentally, a mixed metaphor? Don't worry. We get too upset about mixed metaphors--when metaphors get that common, mix them freely. Fowler says so.)

If things continue as they are, "literally" will one day become just another emphasizer. It will move permanently into that melancholy word-dormitory now occupied by overworked Basically, pretentious Actually, and pale, pathetic Virtually. Then what will we do when we want a word that simply says something, in truth, happened?