Here is a thing which you may have observed. There are people about who don't like it when the word "literally" figures in a sentence whose overall thrust is figurative. It is contended that something has gone wrong, or at any rate it's not an ideal state of affairs. As far as I have been able to determine by arguing with people, the reasons are something like the following: (a) such sentences are (literally) false, or (b) they involve a misuse of the word "literally", or (c) at the very least it's desirable to have a word that functions the way the complainants think "literally" ought to function and no otherwise. So you may have heard it said, but I say to you that (a) such sentences are just as false without the word "literally" in them and no one objects to those, and (b) figurative uses are not misuses, and finally (c) this is not only not desirable, it is not possible.
Consider the following two sentences:
- I was beside myself.
- I could eat a horse.
On no occasion has anyone uttering the first been saying something which is, sensu stricto, true; some particular someone uttering the second on some particular occasion might have been, but it seems unlikely. We know what speakers of these sentences are getting at, of course, and they might therefore be conveying something true to us listeners: that they were very angry; are very hungry. What they are saying is, nevertheless, literally false.
Most people, being for the most part sensible, do not get in a tizzy about that. They don't respond, unless failing in attempts to be humorous, "no you weren't" or "no you couldn't". Nor does even the most persnickety person reply to (1) by saying that the speaker surely misunderstands the meaning of "beside" (or "myself" or any of the other words in the sentence).
How drastically does the situation change when we revise the sentences, add to the hyperbole a little bit!
- I was literally beside myself.
- I could literally eat a horse.
This is guaranteed to raise the hackles of a number of persons, though the precise reason for this horripilation is a little hard for me to make out. One consideration offered is that neither (3) nor (4) is (literally) true. But then, neither were (1) or (2), and, as already mentioned, no one really minds about them. One might account for the difference thus:
Everyone knows that "beside myself" in (1) and "eat a horse" in (2) are meant fancifully, figuratively; in a word (but not literally a word, hahaha) not literally. It isn't literally true, granted, but we know that we aren't meant to take the statement literally. But the speakers of (3) or (4) specifically direct us to take their words literally! They disclaim figurative intent about as clearly as they can!
This isn't really satisfying, though. For one thing, we don't get the same vociferous objections—or as far as I know any objections at all—to sentences such as the following:
- I was honestly/really/actually beside myself.
- I'm not joking/not kidding, I was beside myself.
- I mean it; this is not hyperbole, it's the plain unvarnished truth: I was beside myself.
- I'm not being figurative here: I was beside myself.
And they seem to be of basically the same kidney as (3). Granted, "honestly" vel sim. don't function identically to "literally"; they don't disclaim the figurative in the exact same way. (Obviously this caveat does not apply to (7) or (8).) But why does no one fulminate thus?
You aren't being honest, you're being hyperbolic! You weren't really or actually beside yourself, and you just said you were being honest, were really and actually beside yourself! You may not be joking precisely, but you're not being totally straight either, are you? It clearly is hyperbole and has many coats of varnish, and you just said the opposite! You are definitely being figurative, and you just said you weren't! Goddammit, I believed you!
(At last, one wishes to say, a practical use for the Oulipo! Evade misguided pedants through definitional literature!)
It's not really the falsity of (3) and (4), and in general other sentences in which "literally" is deployed to figurative effect, that annoys people, I take it. My impression is that the real complaint is that "literally" is being used incorrectly, that "literally" is unique in that it, unlike every other word, can only be used, well, literally. There is something offensive about using a word which means "not figuratively" with figurative intent.
It seems, too, as if it really does depend on the fact that, while "literally" means literally, it's being used non-literally that grates. After all, it would be odd to object that "infant" is being used incorrectly in the following sentence:
- Tolstoy was a great moralizing infant.
It's true that "infant" doesn't mean "unrealistic, petty, egocentric, yet powerless despot" (or whatever we might think Mann meant to suggest regarding Tolstoy). But it's not misused. It is, in fact, perfectly aptly used. It's because "infant" means what it does—because it refers to, you know, infants—that its application to the adult Tolstoy does what it does.
It sure seems as if the same thing is happening with "literally"---that is, that it's because "literally" means "not figuratively" that it can be used to strengthen the use of a tired figurative trope. Let us quote from a scholarly article, whose bibliographic information I'll just give inline right here: "Literally speaking", Michael Israel, Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002) 423–32. Ok? Here we go:
As I will argue, the word’s notorious misuse actually marks a natural development from its orthodox usage: people use the word in this way precisely because they do understand the notion of literal meaning, and they associate it, naturally enough, with plain speaking and honest expression. (424)
the folk model of literal meaning seems to be unchanged. In both cases, literal meaning is associated with directness, plain speaking, and, fundamentally, with truth. The shift itself seems to reflect little more than an equivocation between sentence meaning and speaker meaning. This sort of shift is, in fact, quite common with modal expressions whose basic function is to emphasize the fit between reality and the way it is described, and the examples in (10) show uses of really and truly which closely parallel the use of literally in (8):
(10) a. Her guacamole is truly out of this world.
b. She really pulled the wool over our eyes.
As Brugman notes, the adverbs here effectively signal ‘‘that the conventionalized nonliteral meaning [of a figurative expression] ... is being used in a strict sense’’ (1984: 34). (429)
The whole paper is worth a look.
The OED has a good expression of the use of "literally" here discussed; it signifies that "some conventional metaphorical or hyperbolical phrase is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense". It is easy enough to construct a notional origin for this use of the word: some set phrase is getting overused, worn out, bleached, and a speaker, reaching for it, wants to indicate to her listeners that she's not just saying mouthing something, no, she really means it. You could easily say "I could eat a horse" while not being very hungry, especially if it's becoming a conventional expression of hunger, so you say you could literally eat a horse. And, again, it's because "literally" functions as it does in its approved contexts that it works here too.
When, after all, would you use "literally" in the approved sense? When you are aware that your utterance might be taken otherwise than you intend, because some figurative sense is most plausible---or plausible enough, or if you just want to be careful to avoid misunderstanding available at all---and you wish to forestall it: I don't mean this thing that suggests itself, I mean what my words mean on their face.
The same thing is happening in (3) and (4), it's just that the location of the face, so to speak, has shifted. I want you to know that when I say "I was beside myself" I don't just mean "I was annoyed" or "I was ticked off"---I want you to know that I mean what my words mean on their face---where what they mean on their face is the figurative meaning, that I was enraged. (Rather, that is, than that I was merely ticked off.) Quoting Israel quoting Brugman: the conventionalized nonliteral meaning is being used in a strict sense. (What could be clearer?)
So, again, it's hard to make out the claim that "literally" is being misused. Firstly because there's no reason to think that a figurative use of a word is a misuse (I don't have a ``theory'' of the figurative so I may be skating on thin ice in characterizing the use under discussion as figurative but I think it's probably fine), and it's laughable to think that it would be wrong to use a word figuratively just because its literal meaning is "not figurative"---as laughable as thinking that it's wrong to apply a word figuratively to an adult because its literal meaning is "not an adult". And secondly because the non-literal use in question is exactly what you'd expect given the literal uses. It's the right use!
Some people with whom I've had this argument have, at this point, lamented the idea that we're "losing" the literal use of "literal". (They think to score points off me because I actually do think the loss of the "uninterested"/"disinterested" contrast would be a shame.) But we aren't losing the literal use of "literal", any more than sentences like (9) or the imprecation "don't be such a baby" have led us to lose our vocabulary for the very young.
And, of course, it's just not possible to keep a word from being used figuratively. Especially given that "literally" seems tailor-made for the use to which misguided pedants so object. Any proposed replacement, stipulated to mean "literally (literally!!!)", would be suborned to figurative purposes before long, by the exact same process that affected "literally" itself. It is, after all, useful. And I'm not aware of anyone attempting to use "literally" to indicate that her words were, in fact, to be taken literally and not figuratively at all who has been unable to do so.