"… may literally be said …"

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In this morning's post, I noted an early example of metaphorical literally in William Robertson's 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 struck me as a perfect example of the case noted by Henry Bradley in the 1903 edition of the OED, where literally is "used to indicate that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense". A quick Google Books search showed that Robertson was by no means alone: in the last half of the 18th century, the phrase "may literally be said" was a fairly reliable indicator of metaphor or hyperbole.

N. Tindal, The Continuation of Mr. Rapin's History of England, 1759:

The entrenchments of Villa Franca, and those of Montalban, were to be forced, before the French and Spaniards could proceed. The precipices, the defiles, and the dangers, through which they had to pass, before they could succeed in the attack, are not to be described, being a species of fortifications, differing from all others; for here art and nature seemed to vie in making each other impregnable. [...] The young princes commanded an army fit for the enterprize. Though the king of Sardinia had neglected no precaution to oppose them, [...] yet the confederates made themselves masters of the Piedmontese batteries, [...]. The confederate then proceeded from rock to rock, and fought a battle on the top of each. [...] The entrenchments of Montalban followed the fate of those of Villa Franca in three days after. [...]

The confederates may literally be said to have conquered only rocks, but those rocks were the ramparts of his Sardinian majesty's dominions.

"Remarks on the Epithet 'Good Fellow.'", The London Magazine, 1777:

I by no means condemn the drinking of a glass together if opportunity offered; it is laudable and harmless when conducted with decency and order, and confined to the bounds of moderation; but amongst topers there is no medium; if the master of the treat does not "keep it up" until day-light in the morning, he is looked upon as one of a dastardly spirit. They imagine too, they shall appear dull rogues, unless they distinguish themselves by some extraordinary atchievement [sic]. Accordingly some "heroic spirit," more enterprizing than the rest, gives the signal in the true Buck-stile, "Come my Bucks! let's kick up a dust!" Smash goes the punch-bowl, and the whole apparatus on the table, chairs, looking-glasses, &c. are sacrified [sic] as an offering to Bacchus. — After this they sally forth like a troop of banditti, perhaps a fiddler in the train, most miserably persecuting, or rather murdering cat-gut, and may literally be said to act in the character of Orpheus, making the beasts to dance around him.

Sir Richard Joseph Sullivan, Philosophical Rhapsodies, 1785:

From that dreadful period, the power of the Moguls, which, in the absence of Nadir-Shah, once again shone forth, rapidly fell into decay. Wars and civil discord shook it to its foundation. The evil daily increased, especially when European influence began to pervade the heterogeneous mass; so that it now may literally be said to be nearly sunk beneath the horizon.

James Clark, A Treatise on the Prevention of Diseases Incidental to Horses, 1788:

The practice of the Arabians, formerly mentioned, ought, in this respect, to be adopted, which is, washing the legs of their horses frequently through the day with cold water; … How differently treated are the British horses in this respect? no such precautions are ever intentionally used to them, but directly the contrary; it may literally be said, that they are compelled at all times (when in the stable) to stand on a hotbed; at the same time, their hoofs are basted with grease, oil, tar, or turpentine, things perfectly foreign, and of a direct opposite quality to the intention of applying them; by which means, the generality of of fine horses, that are much kept in stables, sooner or later, become cripples.

Henry Swinburne, Travels in the Two Sicilies, 1790:

From the plain I returned to Agrigentum by the same road, and pursuing the track of the walls towards the west, arrived a spot which is covered with the gigantic remains of the temple of Jupiter the Olympian, minutely described by Diodorus Siculus. It may literally be said that it has not one stone left upon another, and it is barely possible, with the help of much conjecture, to discover the traces of its plan and dimensions. (Picture here.)

The Critical Review, 1792. (Review of Letters from America, by W. Eddis):

Summer may, literally, be said to be seated on the lap of winter, and the immediate transition from cold to heat is, evidently, extremely prejudicial to the growth and improvement of wool; so that in quality it is greatly inferior; nor is the quantity produced proportionable to what is yielded in the milder regions of the parent state.

The Gentleman's Magazine, 1796 (reprinted from The Statistical Account of Scotland):

The taste for inclosing and uniting farms, which seems to be on the increase throughout Scotland, will, perhaps, eventually be unfavourable to the population, and most undoubtedly to the personal character and morals of its inhabitants, whom it forces from the active healthy employments of a country life to take refuge in manufacturing towns and populous cities, which may literally be said to be the graves of the human species.

Sir James Edward Smith, English Botany, 1798:

It may literally be said that Roses spring up under our steps as we approach the close of our undertaking, for we have of late added more than could have been imagined to the species of that favourite but difficult tribe.

And so forth.

Update — more of the same available from a search for "may literally say", "might literally be said", etc., e.g.

William Cockin, The Art of Delivering Written Language; or, An Essay on Reading, 1775:

Did not the language of books differ on the whole very much from the ordinary colloquial one, the art of reading would be of much easier attainment than we find it to be. For in that case, a scholar would in learning to read find already at his tongue's end, as I may literally say, a fashionable modulation associated with the proper tones of expression for every passage before him; which with a little practice, he would be able to apply with due masterliness and propriety. But since the former of these languages consists of more complicated periods and less familiar phraseology than the latter, and for which common speech cannot have furnished him with proper accessories of delivery, the attainment of them must require a good deal of time; and this not only on acount of the practice it will require, but also on account of the comparative seldomness, that we hear the langauge of books properly delivered.



22 Comments

  1. Q. Pheevr said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 2:28 pm

    The Andes may literally be said to hide their heads in the clouds [...].

    That's an interesting one, in that there are several potential metaphors packed into it, only one of which is really being used in its literal meaning. The peaks of the Andes are not literally heads, and the mountains do not literally hide them, but they are literally hidden in the clouds. I would assume that literally is being used here to point out that the mountains really are that tall, but perhaps also to acknowledge that the idiomatic sense of having one's head in the clouds isn't applicable.

  2. nemryn said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

    See, all that means is that people have been Doing It Wrong for even longer than we thought!

  3. JL said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    I wonder if, in at least some of these cases, especially the more florid ones, the authors aren't reaching for the word "literarily", and, finding it rather hard to get a good hold on such an uncommon, tongue-twisting thing, settling for "literally" instead.

  4. John Cowan said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    A few of these do not seem to me to be as metaphorical as you say they are. In the 1759 Tindal example, the confederates did indeed conquer only rocks, in the sense that they met no human opposition, even though their conquest of the rocks wound up having a wider significance.

    [(myl) Not true — the sections that I elided included e.g.

    … yet the confederates made themselves masters of the Piedmontese batteries, which flanked the passage of Villa Franca, though the rampart was … defended by 5000 troops. [...]
    The attack of the entrenchment at Villa Franca cost the confederates 5,500 men; of the Piedmontese near 2000 were killed, and about 1500 taken prisoners, …

    So there was plenty of human opposition, there and elsewhere in the operation.

    Likewise, in the 1777 London Magazine, the fiddler does actually act the character (role) of Orpheus, although those he makes dance are not literally beasts.

    The 1788 Clark example is, I think, borderline. A hotbed, says the OED3, is "a bed of soil enclosed in a glass frame, which is heated (typically by fermenting manure) and used for raising or forcing plants." Clark's phrase would be strictly metaphorical if it weren't for the presence of the phrase typically by fermenting manure in the definition, which certainly is what a stable is covered with, particularly if not well mucked-out, so a stable though not literally a hotbed (because its purpose is different) does resemble it in an important particular and not in any far-fetched or hyperbolic way.

    Q. Pheevr: The OED2 gives sense 8 of head as "a thing or part of a thing resembling a head in form or position". There are a good 20 subsenses, and although mountains are not mentioned (as they are in the entry for foot), I think we may fairly say that the use of head for 'mountain peak' is literal, not metaphorical. (In particular, sense 9b is "the rounded leafy top of a tree or shrub", and if a tree has a head, why not a mountain?) Your other point stands: what is non-literal here is the valence of hide.

  5. Joe Linker said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    Another example from literature comes to mind, from Joyce's short story "The Dead," which begins, "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Here, literally means its opposite, for if Joyce had said “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was run off her feet,” the reader would have no signal that in context “run off her feet” is a figure of speech. So Joyce signals the figure with “literally,” to let us know that Lily was in fact not run off her feet. He uses literally to indicate that he’s not speaking literally.

  6. Paul Kay said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    I took the "conquer only rocks" usage to be a comment on the uselessness of the territory they took so much trouble to acquire. That is, I took conquer in the sense of 'conquer territory' rather than 'conquer an enemy' as in the following from the web: "The Crusades' dismal failure was two-fold: first they sapped the greatest of White warriors and sent them to die on a pointless effort to conquer a strategically useless piece of land that was surrounded by enemies." But of course your general point is well taken.

    [(myl) But the conquest wasn't useless -- "those rocks were the ramparts of his Sardinian majesty's dominions". As a result, the King of Sardinia "abandoned to the confederates the territory of Nice". The French and Spanish forces then used "Villa Franca, Montalban, and other places the county of Nice" as a home base for further campaigning.

    This is part of the complex Italian campaigns in the even more complex War of the Austrian Succession. It didn't win the war, but it did arguably play a role in determining the ultimate borders between France and Italy.]

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    Come to think of it, in its supposedly literal sense, "literal" isn't in fact very *useful*. It's not so easy to think of examples that wouldn't consist merely in underlining the plonkingly obvious.

    Especially given the great love that English (and I dare say, other modern European languages) have for continual metaphorical usages that in classical Latin (say) would be regarded as suitable only for poetry – a striking feature of my own language that never occurred to me until I did Latin prose composition and discovered that Latin prose isn't the same. Knew it would be useful one day ,,,

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:44 pm

    Indeed I see a ghostly resistance to metaphor has disturbed my verb agreement in that post

    "great love that English … has"

    (if I may be allowed the metaphor)

  9. army1987 said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Huh, it's quite common to be unable to see the top of a mountain because there's a cloud in the way. (It happened to me with mountains much less tall than the Andes.) That's pretty much the non-metaphorical sense of hide, innit.

    [(myl) But when X hides its head in Y, X is animate, or the whole thing is metaphorical, no? A bed has a head, and so does a hammer, but if a hammer's head were obscured by a rag, could you (non-metaphorically) say "the hammer was hiding its head in a rag"?]

  10. Sid Smith said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

    "Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.”

    I think Joyce is playing games here. He's entering the mind of the character, Lily, and misusing language in a way that she might be expected to.

  11. John said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

    I tend to agree that most of these are barely metaphorical and more word plays. For example, the Mogul power had literally sunk below the horizon in the sense that their territory was now below the horizon which could be seen from the western perspective of the author. Likewise the temple of Olympian Zeus was completely dismantled. And the drunks were, in some sense, beasts, so the comparison with Orpheus was more than apt.

    [(myl) Indeed, they were beasts in a metaphorical sense, just as the Mogul power had sunk below the metaphorical horizon. Come on, guys, you're straining.]

    Some of the others are clearly purely metaphorical (like the roses in our steps), but several others are darn close to merely poetic.

    [(myl) I like that. "It's not figurative, it's merely poetic..."]

  12. Joe Linker said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    @ Sid: Yes, Joyce is playing the game of fiction, what James Wood in his book "How Fiction Works" calls "Free Indirect Style": "…we are not entirely sure who 'owns' the word." It's probably what Lily would have said, that she was literally run off her feet, and we might say that she used it for emphasis, but she might have thought she used it, well, literally, as she says later, "The men that is now is only all palaver," but whose word is "palaver," for we've just been told that Lily is "done schooling this year and more"? In any case, Dawkins's points are generally not linguistic nor religious nor even scientific, but political.

    [(myl) The term "style indirect libre" was coined in 1912 by Charles Bally, a student of de Saussure in Geneva; similar observations had apparently been made fifteen years earlier in Germany. There's an excellent discussion of the history (both of the device and of scholarly discussion of it) in Roy Pascal, The dual voice:
    free indirect speech and its functioning in the nineteenth-century European novel
    , 1977.]

  13. Rhodent said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

    I somehow see the peeverts being less bothered by the phrase "literally be said to be" then other figurative uses of "literally". After all, peeverts are often big on "precision", and that "precision" could result in a parsing of the expression that keeps "lliterally" from being used figuratively.

    Consider, for example, the sentence "Summer may, literally, be said to be seated on the lap of winter". What does "literally" modify? There are three candidates: "may", "be said", and "be seated". If one is feeling pedantic (and when are the peeverts not?), one could argue that the use of "literal" is not figurative if tied to one of the first two options. It it modifies "may", then indeed it may be said (or it may not). If it modifies "be said", then indeed one may perform the action of saying that Summer is seated in Winter's lap. Only the third option is necessarily figurative, and they would likely argue that the word "literally" would be placed elsewhere in the sentence if it was supposed to modify "be seated". I suspect most peeverts, if asked to diagram that sentence, would made "literally" modify "be said".

  14. Joe Linker said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    MYL: Thanks for the Bally and Pascal references. I will check them out. I went back to Wood's book, but see no reference to either. Wood first introduces the topic with "free indirect style." Later he calls it "free indirect speech or style" (p. 9). "We are close to stream of consciousness," Wood says, "and that is the direction free indirect style takes in the ninteenth and early-twentieth centuries." He also says that it is "merely another definition of dramatic irony." The linguist might be most interested however in Wood's discussion of "morally prescriptive" (p. 170). In a footnote: "It is amusing to watch evolutionary biology tie itself up in circularities when trying to answer the question 'Why do humans spend so much time reading fiction when this yields no obvious evolutionary benefits?'". Probably off the thread now, but it does seem to brings us neatly back to Dawkins?

  15. Mark F. said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    In response to MYL's response to army1987 — Yes, the thing is metaphorical as a whole, but I think this does bring up a use of "literally" that's a little different from the "in the strongest possible sense" meaning. Sometimes a familiar figure of speech has some particular aspect that happens to apply in a particularly concrete way to the case at hand, and "literally" can be meant to draw attention to that fact.

    The "heads in the clouds" example is interesting because really there is a switch of which part of the metaphor is metaphoric. Usually, when that expression is used, the head is actually someone's head, but its presence in the clouds is figurative. The author was pointing to the literalness of the "being in the clouds" aspect, without regard to the figurative nature of the "hide their heads" formulation. That's a little different than a simple intensive use.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    Okay, let me take a crack at all of these.

    "The Andes may literally be said to hide their heads in the clouds…" As people have said, the statement is more literal than usual (like Bradley's "the strongest admissible sense"), since their tops are hidden in the clouds, but it's still a personification.

    "The confederates may literally be said to have conquered only rocks, but those rocks were the ramparts of his Sardinian majesty's dominions." Not metaphor or hyperbole. The author concedes that it's literally true that the land conquered was nothing but rock; however, it was strategically important.

    "After this they sally forth like a troop of banditti, perhaps a fiddler in the train, most miserably persecuting, or rather murdering cat-gut, and may literally be said to act in the character of Orpheus, making the beasts to dance around him." Metaphorical, seeing the violin strings as animals. (Also not very grammatical.) Literally seems pointless: the strongest admissible sense is just the one we'd expect, so we don't need to be told it's the strongest.

    "the heterogeneous mass… now may literally be said to be nearly sunk beneath the horizon." Pointless just like the last one. The strongest admissible sense is precisely the conventional metaphor.

    "it may literally be said, that they are compelled at all times (when in the stable) to stand on a hotbed…" More literal than usual, as John Cowan pointed out, but the manure still isn't being used as a heat source for tender plants.

    "It may literally be said that it has not one stone left upon another…" Not knowing anything about the ruins, I can imagine this as not hyperbolic, though the phrase often is hyperbolic.

    "Summer may, literally, be said to be seated on the lap of winter…" Pointless again.

    "manufacturing towns and populous cities, which may literally be said to be the graves of the human species." More literal than usual, since we're talking about real death rather than "the grave of my hopes", but still metaphorical.

    "It may literally be said that Roses spring up under our steps…" More literal than usual, since we're talking about real roses that are new to us instead of a flight of fancy, but still metaphorical.

    "a scholar would in learning to read find already at his tongue's end, as I may literally say, a fashionable modulation associated with the proper tones of expression for every passage before him…" Pointless—it's the conventional meaning of the phrase.

  17. Faldone said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    I notice in all these examples it is the ability to say that is literal.

  18. Dan H said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:46 am

    It might be – if you'll forgive me – literally the case that in these examples "literally" can be taken as modifying "can be said" rather than the description that follows, but that would change the meaning of most of the examples in an unhelpful way.

    If you take "literally" as describing the ability to say then "the Andes may literally be said to hide their heads in the clouds" goes from meaning: "the tops of the Andes are hidden by clouds, very much as if they were people hiding their heads" to "it is possible to articulate the sentence 'the Andes hide their heads in the clouds' in spoken English."

    You could argue that this is what all of those examples "really" mean but I suspect that most people would infer from the statement "X can literally be said to be Y" that there is some truth to the observation that X is Y.

  19. Alex said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    As someone who works in the Andean region, I can tell you that mountains are personified by local people in the highlands to the extent that they definitely do have heads that are as real as any other social fiction (such as law or kinship). Reading the sentence, I had trouble at first seeing what part of it was supposed to be figurative!

    The apus are called "mountain spirits" by outsiders, but it would be just as accurate to call them animate mountains. Among other things, you offer them liquids so they will pee in your (mountaintop glacier-fed) irrigation canals.

  20. John Cowan said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 2:14 am

    Alex: As I said, head is indeed literal, but hide is not: the clouds hide the heads, but the heads do not hide themselves in the clouds.

  21. Commonly Confused Words | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    August 15, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    [...] least one Wordnik); Stan Carey provided a thorough and amusing post about it; Language Log gave a historical citation of its use and misuse; and most recently, Christopher Muther at the Boston Globe wrote about how it may be the (cough) [...]

  22. Tuesday Hatred of Word Nerds « The Weblog said,

    August 7, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

    [...] Literally is a specific kind of intensifier–I like this explanation, from the OED via Language Log, "that some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest [...]

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