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?

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image