November 01, 2005

Literally: a history

Yet another usage bugaboo decried as the death of English turns out to have a long and venerable history. This time it's literally used not so literally. On Slate, Oxford English Dictionary editor-at-large Jesse Sheidlower takes us through a chronicling of literally applied intensively: from its emergence as a general intensifier for true statements in the late 17th century, to its use as an intensifier for figurative or metaphorical expressions in the late 18th century, on down to latter-day complaints beginning in the early 20th century (and peeveblogging in the early 21st century!). It's an arc that should look familiar to connoisseurs of the Recency Illusion.

I don't have much to add, other than to flesh out some of the early history. Using Chadwyck's Literature Online database,  I can take the disputed usage (literally intensifying figurative speech) back to the 1760s. Here are three examples:

George Colman and David Garrick, The Clandestine Marriage (1766), p. 61
I look upon it, Madam,  /  to be one of the luckiest circumstances of my life,  /  that I have this moment the honour of receiving  /  your commands, and the satisfaction of confirming  /  with my tongue, what my eyes perhaps have but too  /  weakly expressed---that I am literally---the humblest  /  of your servants.  /

Frances Brooke, The History of Emily Montague, Vol. IV (1769), pp. 82-3
I am just come from a walk in the wood behind the house, with my mother and Emily; I want you to see it before it loses all its charms; in another fortnight, its present variegated foliage will be literally humbled in the dust.

Ibid., p. 175
He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

The speaker in the first example isn't literally the humblest of his correspondent's servants; the speaker of the second doesn't think the foliage will be literally humbled in the dust (as a human would be humbled); and the speaker of the third isn't talking about literally feeding among the lilies. And yet there it is. Would we be as perturbed by this usage if we switched literally to really, even though it would be intensifying figures of speech that aren't "real"? As Sheidlower points out, really is for some reason impervious to the criticism leveled at literally, much as sentence adverbs like clearly escape the animadversions heaped upon hopefully.

A final comment: one of Sheidlower's early examples of a usage maven complaining about intensive literally is in a 1909 book by the great satirist Ambrose Bierce entitled Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. It's old enough to be in public domain, and the text can be found on the Internet via Project Gutenberg, inter alia. From a quick look at some of the entries, it seems far more entertaining than The Elements of Style. This shouldn't be surprising for fans of The Devil's Dictionary and other acid-tongued companions in the Bierce oeuvre. So how come Write it Right isn't memorialized with lavish illustrated editions and operatic song cycles?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 1, 2005 09:19 AM