They almost non-metaphorically never complain about this!

« previous post | next post »

In reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, I noticed that  Prof. Dawkins is rather fond of the word literally, using it 38 times in the roughly 130,000 words of the cited work, for a rate of about 292 per million words. This is more than eight times greater than the overall rate of about 35 per million words in the COCA corpus, and 15 times greater than the rate of 15 per million words in the British National Corpus.

Most of Prof. Dawkins' uses of literally do not mean "word for word" or "in a literal as opposed to figurative way", but instead are a sort of intensifier. This is not at all surprising, since the emphasizing sense has been the commonest meaning of literally for a century or more, and Richard Dawkins is a very emphatic person. But all the same, I doubt that the legions of peevers who believe that literal should only be used to mean "not figurative" will even notice Prof. Dawkins' usage, much less work themselves into a froth over it. That's because his usage occupies a sort of middle ground, whose inconsistency with the "word for word" and "not figurative" meanings is subtle rather than blatant.

Consider how the entry for literally in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage analyzes the semantic drift of literally. This narrative, which is not as well known as it deserves to be, follows the Oxford English Dictionary's entry through four stages.

The first … means "in a literal manner; word for word": the passage was translated literally. The second … means "in a literal way": some people interpret the Bible literally. The third … could be defined "actually" or "really" and is used to add emphasis. It seems to be of literary origin. [...] The purpose of the adverb in [these] instances is to add emphasis to the following word or phrase, which is intended in a literal sense. The [fourth,] hyperbolic use comes from placing the same intensifier in front of some figurative word or phrase which cannot be taken literally.

In one instance, Prof. Dawkins uses literally in the first of this succession of meanings, "word for word" (or here "morpheme for morpheme"):

Theologians worry about the problems of suffering and evil, to the extent that they have even envented a name, 'theodicy' (literally, 'justice of God'), for the enterprise of trying to reconcile it with the presumed beneficence of God.

In a few cases, Prof. Dawkins uses literally with the second of these meanings, "in a literal (as opposed to a metaphorical, figurative or symbolical) way". In these cases, we could replace "literally" with "non-figuratively" or "non-symbolically" and retain the sense, if not the style:

[The enlightened bishops and theologians] may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally. But do their congregations know that? How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically?

But in the great majority of the 38 examples in this book, Dawkins uses MWDEU's third sense of literally, meaning something more like "truly" or "precisely" — or simply "pay attention, now!":

A tree-ring clock can be used to date a piece of wood, say a beam in a Tudor house, with astonishing accuracy, literally to the nearest year. [...]

And the amazing thing about dendrochronology is that, theoretically at least, you can be accurate to the nearest year, even in a petrified forest 100 million years old. You could literally say that this ring in a Jurassic fossil tree was laid down exactly 257 years later than this other ring in another Jurassic tree!

It's true that he means these chronological assertions to be literal rather than figurative, but it would be weird to substitute "non-figuratively" or "non-symbolically" or "non-metaphorically":

?A tree-ring clock can be used to date a piece of wood, say a beam in a Tudor house, with astonishing accuracy, non-figuratively to the nearest year. [...]

?And the amazing thing about dendrochronology is that, theoretically at least, you can be accurate to the nearest year, even in a petrified forest 100 million years old. You could non-symbolically say that this ring in a Jurassic fossil tree was laid down exactly 257 years later than this other ring in another Jurassic tree!

In the many cases where Prof. Dawkins uses literally to emphasize a negative, substituting a literal reference to non-figurative meaning would be even stranger:

?It is a fact that non-metaphorically nothing you could remotely call a mammal has ever been found in Devonian rock or in any older stratum. They are not just statistically rarer in Devonian than in later rocks. They non-figuratively never occur in rocks older than a certain date. [...]

?There are non-symbolically no trilobites above Permian strata, non-metaphorically no dinosaurs (except birds) above Cretaceous strata.

In such examples, there is no opposition is between a literal meaning and a figurative or metaphorical of symbolic one. Instead, the role of literally is to emphasize the absolute truth of the negative.

When literally is weakened to "almost literally", it would be stranger still to substitute a denial of figurative, metaphorical, or symbolic intent:

The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet they almost literally never collide.

?The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet they almost non-metaphorically never collide.

Here it seems that literally adds nothing to the truth-conditional meaning: "they almost literally never collide" seems to be true in just the same set of circumstances that "they almost never collide" is. The only effect of literally in this sentence is to emphasize that the statement is true.

It's easy to see how this purely-emphatic sense of literally turns into the hyperbolic sense, as it did by 1839 when Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby:

His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone, but there was something of the old fire in teh large sunken eye notwithstanding, …

And also:

"Lift him out," said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit. "Bring him in; bring him in."

The second of these quotes is in the MWDEU entry, as is the fact that the 1903 OED included a note by the editor, Henry Bradley, to the effect that literally is

Now often improperly used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.

It seems to me that the last quotation from Richard Dawkins, the one about how flocking birds "almost literally never collide", helps us to understand the transition from emphasis to hyperbole.  Consider this passage from a recent restaurant review (Sam Sifton, "A Modern Italian Master", NYT 9/28/2010):

For the celebration of business deals, for instance, there is an enormous rib-eye, cooked to rosy perfection beneath a dusting of salt and pepper, with a pile of fried potatoes, a tangle of Italian arugula and dots of tomato raisins that are worth almost literally their weight in gold. (The dish is $130 à la carte.)

What does it mean to say that those tomato raisins "are worth almost literally their weight in gold"? The meaning here is surely very close to Bradley's diagnosis, "used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest possible sense".

And in fact, similar uses of the phrase "almost literally" are fairly common. There are 375 instances in the New York Times index since 1981, compared to seven instances of "almost really" and just one of "almost actually" ("Herb was almost actually bowled over by the thunderous roar of 'Surprise!'").

And this is not a new development. Thus Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817:

And yet it would not be easy to discover any substantial ground for this contemptuous pride in those literati, who have most distinguished themselves by their scorn of Behmen, De Thoyras, George Fox , &c;.; unless it be, that they could write orthographically, make smooth periods, and had the fashions of authorship almost literally at their fingers ends, while the latter, in simplicity of soul, made their words immediate echoes of their feelings.

Or Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1834:

Into the Hofrath's Institute , with its extraordinary schemes, and machinery of Corresponding Boards and the like, we shall not so much as glance. Enough for us to understand that Heuschrecke is a disciple of Malthus; and so zealous for the doctrine, that his zeal almost literally eats him up. A deadly fear of Population possesses the Hofrath; something like a fixed-idea; undoubtedly akin to the more diluted forms of Madness. Nowhere, in that quarter of his intellectual world, is there light; nothing but a grim shadow of Hunger; open mouths opening wider and wider; a world to terminate by the frightfullest consummation: by its too dense inhabitants, famished into delirium, universally eating one another.

"Reminiscence of Fulton's First Steam Voyage", in Littell's Living Age, 1850

Such, then, were the events coupled with the very dawn of steam navigation — a dawn so recent as to be still recollected by many — and such as Fulton there related them, were the early appreciations, by the world, of a discovery which has invaded all water, causing a revolution in navigation which has almost literally brought the very ends of the earth in contact.

Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872:

The consequence might be guessed without my telling it: peopled turned their stock loose to starve, and before the spring arrived Carson and Eagle valleys were almost literally carpeted with their carcases!

Edwin Herbert Lewis, "Some Definitions of Individualism", American Journal of Sociology, 1912

… the researches of the psychiatrists have shown that more than one abnormal mind can actually function in one body, and it is quite clear that normal mind is some sort of collective, "active," and social process. A friend may almost literally pour out his soul into our waiting ears, or we may almost literally read it in his eyes.

Roberta Smith, "Shadowy Nomads, Writ in Warp and Woof", NYT 12/31/2007:

His charcoal drawings are never as effective on the wall as they are when mutating in his powerful animated films and videos. In moving images the charcoal becomes a tool that almost literally burrows through South African history and human consciousness.

Adam Goodheart, "A Capital Under Slavery's Shadow", NYT 2/24/2011:

It was a chilling reminder – in case any were needed – of the squalid realities lying almost literally in the shadow of the republic’s glittering monuments.

If we take literally to mean "in actual fact", and almost to have its normal meaning of "very nearly", then the compositional meaning of "almost literally" in these passages would surely make them false. The fraction of the Carson and Eagle valleys that was carpeted with cattle corpses was surely in actual fact vanishingly small; the ratio of the price per ounce of tomato raisins to that of gold was no doubt nearly as small; no matter how fervent Heuschrecke's zeal for Malthus may have been, it couldn't eat him in actual fact, or come at all close to it in any non-metaphorical sense; and so on.

Rather, the meaning of "almost literally" in such examples seems to be something like "interpret what follows in the strongest contextually plausible sense, short of it being actually true".

This is different, I think, from the (much rarer) forms like "almost actually", "almost truly", and "almost really", which do have something like their compositional meaning, as in this case:

Steven Taylor, Far Beyond Forever, 2006:

It's hard to realize that it's almost really over and we'll be leaving this place for good in only one week.

Now, lurking in the background of this discussion are the many people who get deeply upset over hyperbolical uses of  literally. One of them is literally lurking in the background of this xkcd strip:

But as far as I know, none of these people has ever pounced on one of these "interpret in the strongest contextually possible untrue sense" uses of "almost literally". (I exempt Victor Steinbok, whose note about an example of "almost literally" on NPR happened to coincide with my perusal of The Greatest Show on Earth; as I understand it, Victor was observing rather than complaining.)

And now, for the few who are still with me, a final note about an unexpected connection between scripture and skateboards. NYT archive search generates "Related Ads" via Google AdWords:

Related Ads are links to keyword-targeted advertisements provided through the Google AdWords™ program. These links are purchased by companies that want to have their links appear with related search terms.

My search for "literally" generated Related Ads about bible study, which is hermeneutically straightforward. My search for "almost literally" generated Related Ads for skateboards. Can anyone explain why?

Update — for another pre-Dickensian hyperbolic literally, see William Robertson, History of America (Volume I), 1777:

The Andes may literally be said to hide their heads in the clouds; the storms often roll, and the thunder bursts below their summits, which, though exposed to the rays of the sun in the centre of the torrid zone, are covered with everlasting snows.

This strikes me as a perfect example of an adverb "used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense".   Note that Ben Zimmer took it back to 1766 in "Literally: A History", LL 11/1/2005; and I take it back to 1759 here



  1. Vance Maverick said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Almost is a brand of skateboards. (Literally!)

  2. Mr Punch said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    Almost literally – "Literally" seems to be one of those words, like "perfect" and "identical," that are regarded by some as absolute: either it is or it isn't, no degrees. I recall be corrected by teachers, and at least questioned by editors, over "almost identical." As it happens, I think almost/nearly has to do with figurative distance rather than degree, but apparently some people disagree.

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:51 am

    Mr. Punch, are you saying you find "almost never" incorrect?

  4. Sili said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:52 am

    Good to get the non-literal "literally"s from Dickens. Always nice to have some counterexamples to combat the recency illusion in the peevers.

  5. Axl said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Isn't the first instance ('theodicy') an example of a distinct subset of "literally", equivalent to "etymologically", where "etymologically" retains its "true meaning" connotation? This seems (to me anyway) close to, but distinct from, the translation or word-for-word sense.

  6. JL said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    It seems to me that you have two different sorts of cases here. In some, you could change "almost literally" to "literally almost". and they'd be quite true and make perfect sense, though they'd be a little ungainly. I don't know how many dead cattle their were in Twain's example, or how much tomato raisins are in Sifton's, but "dots of tomato raisins that are literally almost worth their weight in gold" sounds reasonable to me. I'm sure linguists have some a word or phrase for this sort of inversion: I would imagine it's not uncommon.

    Other examples, like Smith's ("a tool that literally almost burrows through South African history") don't make any more sense when the phrase is inverted.

    @Mr. Punch: "unique" is, in my experience, the classic example of this. But in most of these cases, it seems attributing a surplus is problematic, but a deficit is not. "More perfect" is bothersome (though it's in the Preamble to the Constitution, and sounds stirring there), but "less perfect" is not, nor is "almost perfect". "More unique" is absurd, "less unique", is iffy, but "almost unique" seems quite all right to me. By the same token, "more identical" is meaningless, "less identical" is understandable but could probably be better said, and I don't see any problem at all with "almost identical", which I would take to mean simply "very similar". In short, the words aren't absolute in every direction; they're simply zeniths.

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    I don't understand why anyone would reject "almost perfect" or "almost identical." But "more perfect" or "more identical" will raise quite a few eyebrows, and possibly some voices.

  8. James said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    The first uses clearly (to me!) mean ‘non-hyperbolically’. Although in some of them it would be odd to substitute ‘non-hyperbolically’, you could always substitute ‘(and I am not exaggerating)’.
    Then the Dawkins uses with ‘almost’ seem to me to mean ‘in the strictest sense’, a quasi-quotation operator. That’s not quite 'the strongest contextually possible untrue sense', but it’s just a short step away.

  9. James said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    @Ralph Hitchcock: You don't accept "a more perfect union"?

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    @MYL: My substitute for literally in the Dawkins quotations wouldn't be non-symbolically or non-metaphorically but without exaggeration or without hyperbole. This makes sense when the statement sounds like an exaggeration.

    The MWDEU seems to have omitted that sense. Or it's their "interpret literally" sense with some kind of mention instead of use.

    That kid was literally bouncing off the walls—I was afraid he was going to hurt himself.

    This means, That kid was bouncing off the walls, and I mean "bouncing off the walls" literally…

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:28 am

    To put it more tersely, I agree with James.

  12. Diane said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    I heartily dislike the use of literally for emphasis, because I think it causes unnecessary confusion. There are plenty of words that can be used for emphasis but there's really no other word that means "literally", in the sense of "actual". So if you use "literally" to mean actually and someone misunderstands it as simply a term of emphasis, it is hard to clarify without sounding neurotic.

    To wit, a conversation I had recently:
    Me: My husband's family is very large. He has literally over a hundred cousins and doesn't even know all their names.
    Her: Mine, too!
    Me: No, really, there's more than a hundred of them!
    Her: [laughing] Oh, yeah, too many to count!
    Me: [getting exasperated] No, I'm not kidding, his dad was one of 11 kids and his mom was one of 16 so there's literally more than a hundred cousins!
    Her: Oh, yeah, that's a lot. I mean, we have, like, 20.

    Drives me nuts.

  13. HP said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    The example involving flocking birds seems to me to be a case of biologists' love of qualifiers run wild.

    "The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet they never collide."

    That's not quite right. There have been collisions observed, usually with sick or injured birds.

    "The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet they almost never collide."

    But that implies that collisions are an uncommon, yet normal event. Better try again.

    "The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet they almost literally never collide."


  14. Steve T said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    HP, how about:

    "The number of individual birds in these flocks can run into thousands, yet it's rare they collide."

    or even

    …"yet it's extremely rare they collide."

    Often, I find that if you leave "literally" out of the sentence, it makes a ton more sense.

  15. Joe Linker said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    It comes as no surprise that Dawkins the scientist fancies the word literally, but does Dawkins unwittingly use literally figuratively? When he says “…to know which bits of scripture to take literally, which symbolically?”, he argues against symbolic realism, which must be read figuratively. A stop sign is a symbol that is literally true, and yet is a figure. There are reasons the sign is painted red, and not green, literal reasons that have figurative explanations (though no doubt we can trace those explanations evolutionarily). Yet Dawkins’s use of literally suggests his desire for scientific argument: if we can say that something is literally true, that which is figuratively true must be literally false, in the scientific experimentation sense that what is true must be falsifiable. His test is literal. But language is metaphor, literally. There’s no way around that figurative language is literally true – either that or all language is literally false. “Almost literally…their weight in gold”: Here, the speaker seems not to want to slide completely into metaphor, but he’s already there; the use of “almost” tries to hedge the bet. If Dawkins slips fully into metaphor he loses some strength of his opposing viewpoint – he joins the opposition, where the figurative is taken literally – no, where the figure is literal (“This is my body”; not, “This is like my body.”). “Almost literally” becomes a kind of oxymoron, or should, in Dawkins’s presumably literally scientific rigor. His use of literally seems almost entirely figurative, particularly when used for emphasis. If the test says the answer is 3, the scientist doesn’t say literally 3. Literally 3 is either simply redundant or changes the equation to metaphor.

  16. Sid Smith said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    Agree with JL that 'almost literally' isn't necessarily wrong in the tomatoes example:

    Gold costs $100 an ounce. These tomatoes cost $99 an ounce. Therefore these tomatoes are almost literally worth their weight in gold.

    But, yes, it's sloppy of Dawkins to say that the birds 'almost literally never collide' for the same reason that he'd be sloppy in saying that they 'literally never collide'.

  17. John Cowan said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

    Diane, I think you'd have been better off leaving out literally or any other such word. "He has more than a hundred cousins" is by itself literal. In other contexts, though, actually, in fact, or indeed can do the work you want literally to do. Nobody would interpret "I actually saw George Segal waiting for the bus" as anything but literal, for example. (My wife did, actually, see him do that.)

  18. VMartin said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    There must be some shift in using the word by professor Dawkins. I counted "literally" in 'Selfish gene' only 3 times.

    [(myl) A search for "literally" in The Selfish Gene via Google Books yields at least 12 examples on 11 pages...]

    Professor Dawkins also wrote in 'Selfish gene':

    The group is too wishy-washy an entity.

    One wonders – if he is right then what about "natural selection" , the key concept of Darwinism? Isn't "natural selection" literally more "wishy-washy" than "group"?

  19. Dan K said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    I also agree with James.

    I was struck in reviewing the 38 usages by the impression that for most of them, if you removed the word "literally," it would be easy, perhaps easiest, to read the sentence as hyperbole or figurative speech of some sort. E.g., "They never occur in rocks older…" could easily be taken as hyperbole, and it's very hard to explain away the addition of "literally" except as a warning to the reader that it's really meant non-figuratively. So I find it very difficult to agree with the assertion that most of the uses do not mean "'in a literal as opposed to figurative way.'" When the figurative meaning would be a form of hyperbole, a word that means non-figurative is naturally a sort of intensifier — it's the easiest way to say you're not exaggerating for effect. The fact that you can't substitute "non-figuratively" without it sounding weird doesn't seem that compelling. It's awkward, but means the same thing. I.e., "non-figuratively to the nearest year" is weird indeed, but "to the nearest year and I'm not exaggerating" doesn't.

    [(myl) This seems somewhat circular, frankly. Why would a reader be tempted to interpret a categorical statement like "They never occur in rocks older ..." as hyperbole, especially since the whole passage emphasizes the categorical nature of the evidence? And among the 78+ instances of "never" in the book, just two are preceded by "literally" -- should we take that to mean that the other 76+ are hyperbolic? I don't think so, nor do they read that way to me.

    A more plausible explanation is that Dawkin's goal, in the passage in question, is to hammer home the categorical nature of the evidence about the temporal relation of evolutionary stages. He uses many devices to do this, and the repeated application of emphatic literally is one of them.]

  20. JL said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

    @Sid Smith: Much as I hate to correct someone who's supporting me, I should point out that, as of today, gold is about $1460 an ounce. If Sifton is right, in my interpretation of him, those better be some damn good tomatoes.

  21. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    The "literally = without exaggeration" explanation, aside from being so obviously correct that I don't understand how Dr. Liberman can quibble with it, also has the virtue of accounting quite nicely for "almost literally". Notice that "almost without exaggeration" is also well attested, with the same sense.

  22. Sid Smith said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 4:28 pm



    True! Tho it perhaps underlines our point that 'almost literally' is a matter of fact (in this case of kitchen economics) rather than of grammar. So 'almost literally' can be acceptable, provided that the point of fact is *almost* true.

    Perhaps we could agree on: 'The truffle was almost literally worth its weight in gold.'

  23. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    I think one upshot of this discussion is that 'literally', even when understood literally, is not equivalent to 'non-metaphorically', since it also implies 'non-hyperbolically'. If I say 'I've been waitng for you for years', when in fact I have been waiting only half an hour, what I say is clearly not meant literally, but it would be odd to call it metaphorical.

  24. Jahi Chappell said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    Anyone else find Diane's statement "but there's really no other word that means "literally", in the sense of "actual"" amusingly self-contradictory? And it's followed with "So if you use "literally" to mean actually…"! As John Cowan points out, it seems like "actually" is a substitute that clarifies the ambiguity Diane is literally being driven to distraction about :)

    Also, it seems to me in her example that there is a mutual lack of successful communication. She is intent on expressing that there are actually more than 100 cousins; her conversation partner seems to be unconcerned with actual exact numbers but is rather trying to communicate mutuality. Re-phrased, it does make Diane sound, perhaps, a bit neurotic, though for reasons possibly other than she realizes. She seems intent on expressing quite specifically the fact that her husband has more than 100 cousins–her conversation partner seems to miss the importance Diane places on large but specific number, trying to imply mutuality because they have some number of cousins they interpret as being similarly large.

    "It's over 100!"
    "I know, I have a large family too."
    "I'm not just saying large, I'm saying over 100!"
    "Yeah, we have like over 20."
    "I'm talking 1/2 an order of magnitude more cousins than that!"
    "Yes, we both have many cousins."
    "But my husband has more than 99, less than 150 of them!"
    "That is much larger than normal, just like the larger than normal number in my family."

  25. Dan K said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    @myl: A reader would be tempted to interpret this kind of categorical statement as hyperbole because people often use categorical words like "never" and "nothing" when they don't mean them literally. I'm not savvy enough to document this using google, but I'm going to assert that there's a rich history of "our team never wins," "mom never lets us do anything fun," "I got nothing out of that book," "nothing good ever comes out of Hollywood," etc. (The last example, come to think of it, may be literally true.) I think it's more plausible than not that Dawkins wanted to rule out that kind of misunderstanding here, and used the word "literally" for that reason. But we're all entitled to our own judgments of plausibility when it comes to an author's intentions, I guess. The paragraph indeed emphasizes the categorical nature of the evidence, and his use of the word "literally" is a big part of that. After using the dreaded word once, he writes, "They are not just statistically rarer… They literally never occur…" To me, it seems almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that he is desperately pleading with readers not to take the words "nothing" and "never" as mere hyperbole (i.e., here meaning "statistically rarer"). I certainly agree that the use is emphatic, but I can't see how to avoid the conclusion that it's emphatic specifically because it rules out a common figurative use?

    I should add that my assertion that "literally" is used here to rule out a hyperbolic reading does not in any way imply that everywhere it's absent is therefore hyperbolic. In many cases, I imagine he omitted it because a hyperbolic reading was unlikely in context, or because he didn't feel it was important to make the distinction. In this paragraph, it's clear enough from the entire paragraph that he was concerned that "nothing" wouldn't be taken literally.

  26. army1987 said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    What the hell would be wrong with "yet they hardly ever collide"?

  27. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    Jahi Chappell: While in some contexts 'actually' will convey the point – and certainly if you say 'When I say literally, I mean actually' it is fairly clear – this won't work in every context, because 'actually' can also be used in other ways, for instance to contrast with what might have happened or what would have happened in a counterfactual case. In such contexts it can be used metaphorically. (E.g 'If he had had no cousins he might have reacted differently, but actually he has hundreds of cousins'.)

  28. ShadowFox said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    It's interesting how adding yet another modifier might reverse the metaphoric drift. If I say "We literally have hundreds of these things", that means that we have a lot of "these things" and the number might count in the hundreds, although that hardly is certain. If this is changed to "We quite literally have hundreds of these things," suddenly there seems to be a considerably greater certainty concerning the number of "these things" actually counting in the hundreds.

  29. Jonathan D said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    I, too, have always understood usage like Dawkins as meaning "without exaggeration", and the "almost literallys" as acknowledging exaggeration while insisting that fact of exaggeration can't be relevant. Sure, he's trying to hammer something home, and he uses "literally" where he might not need to, to do that, but how does that take away from the idea that he is using it to meaning not-hyperbolic in particular?

  30. Dominik Lukes said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 4:06 am

    If I could offer an addition to the analysis. In my post on this subject - – I did some collocate hunting and found that "almost" is the third most common word immediately preceding "literally" with "quite" being first. This (and other things) suggest that "literally" is often associated with scalar concepts and therefore as both a potential trigger and disambiguator of hyperbole.

    [(myl) Thanks -- I missed this when it came out, and I'm glad to read it now.]

  31. pj said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 6:24 am

    For me, birds that 'hardly ever' collide would still collide significantly more frequently than birds that 'almost literally never' collide. Not you?

  32. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    Yet another cartoon, on my blog, here.

  33. Diane said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    @Jahi Chappell

    Actually, when I was writing that post I thought about whether actually could replace literally in that sentence and I literally decided that it could not. :)

    Seriously, though, neither "actually" nor "really" would have been natural for me to say in the first sentence in that dialogue. (John Cowan's use of actually also sounds awkward to me.) To me they would both be used later, to add emphasis or clarify, but not the first time you bring up a topic. But perhaps that is just how I talk and others would use it differently.

    It's not that there aren't ways to rephrase to get the point across. It's the fact that I said what I meant and I was misunderstood that frustrated me. But Jahi, you're more right than you know (*laughing*) That bit of dialogue came from a conversation about the craziness of marrying into a big family. I was trying to one-up her and she wasn't letting me!

  34. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    Diane, how about "not exaggerating"?

  35. Ellen K. said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    @Sid Smith: But the price of gold is way higher than $100 per ounce.

  36. Dan H said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:47 am

    In Diane's example above, I tend to agree with Jahi Chappell, it sounds like a fundamental disconnect rather than an actual language issue.

    I can only speak personally, but I generally *would* take "literally over a hundred" as meaning you cared more about the specific value (if you were just trying to give the impression of large numbers I'd expect you to say "literally a hundred" or "literally hundreds"). For that matter I'm pretty sure I'd take "over a hundred" without qualification as being more specific about number.

  37. Jahi Chappell said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

    @Dan H: Interesting point–"literally" is possibly an unnecessary embellishment. If I said "I have over one hundred cousins", I would quite expect people to take me at my word. I was going to say that my intonation (inflection? -not-a-linguist-) could possibly clue in whether or not I was being literal, but I *cannot* imagine making the (what I perceive as) inflection pattern hinting that I'm engaging in hyperbole or rough approximations without adding "…,like,…" as in, "I have, like, over a hundred cousins." The raw statement conveys itself–and of course, an exact number is all the better: "My husband has 103 cousins" has absolutely no need of "literally".

    Funny that I was getting a similar gist of the actual conversation, which was a bit of one-upmanship. Thanks for the background, Diane!! So I still maintain that this is an example of unavoidable human misunderstandings, not ameliorable by more precise language. A more precise language takes two to tango–not only do you have to mean it precisely, the other person must a) understand the content you're meaning precisely, b) believe that you mean it precisely, and c) care that you mean it precisely. It seems like (c) was missing in Diane's example, and no amount of optimal language design would get by it :)

    Ultimately, what irks me about peevologist complaints based on "it [should] convey information more logically" is that what they want is not just a more logical language, but a more logical (and conforming) people who will correspondingly agree to *never mean anything than the given meanings*, where [given] = [what the peevologist assumes it "originally" meant, often shown on Language Log to be a new, not original, meaning]. I just have no desire to live in such a conformist world; I *like* playing with language and layering meaning and implication; using conflicting "literal" meaning and implication to construct irony, hyperbole, or sarcasm, etc. etc. And I've never met a situation where fluid word definitions couldn't be solved by context. Of course, I've also never met a situation where I can't shove my excessive verbiage "down someone's earhole" :p (Anyone wondering what that latter is from, I couldn't remember, but a little Google-fu refreshed my memory of the Ron White routine it came from)

  38. Jahi Chappell said,

    March 20, 2011 @ 11:43 pm

    Or rather, there are few situations where I'm able to *contain myself* and stop from shoving unwanted information down others' earholes… :) And excuse the many "slips of the tongue" and accidental word omissions in the above post…

  39. Rodger said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    An odd sighting of "literally" in today's Guardian: "an American Muslim …, who quite literally has foregone his right to an eye for an eye", referring to Rais Bhuiyan who is actually campaigning for his attacker's death sentence to be commuted.

  40. Sadly, Jamie Redknapp is literally correct – Telegraph Blogs said,

    March 12, 2012 @ 5:02 am

    [...] Women (published 1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote "the land literally flowed with milk and honey." Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): "His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone", and "'Lift him [...]

  41. H said,

    April 23, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    Two years late comes:
    'In one respect, almost literally so' in the Economist.

  42. No we haven't 'literally killed' the English language. Or metaphorically killed it. Stand down, semantics nerds – Telegraph Blogs said,

    August 13, 2013 @ 5:56 am

    [...] Women (published 1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote "the land literally flowed with milk and honey." Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): "His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone", and "'Lift him [...]

  43. Delightful oddities | MasterWord said,

    August 20, 2013 @ 5:56 am

    [...] that "literally" has been literally used non-literally for literally centuries: even Dickens said in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): "His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone", and [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment