lit·er·al | \ ˈli-t(ə-)rəl \

Definition of literal 

(Entry 1 of 2)

1a : according with the letter of the scriptures adheres to a literal reading of the passage

b : adhering to fact or to the ordinary construction or primary meaning of a term or expression : actual liberty in the literal sense is impossible —B. N. Cardozo

c : free from exaggeration or embellishment the literal truth

d : characterized by a concern mainly with facts a very literal man

2 : of, relating to, or expressed in letters The distress signal SOS has no literal meaning.

3 : reproduced word for word : exact, verbatim a literal translation



Definition of literal (Entry 2 of 2)

: a small error usually of a single letter (as in writing)

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Other words from literal


literality \ˌli-tə-ˈra-lə-tē \ noun
literalness \ˈli-t(ə-)rəl-nəs \ noun

Examples of literal in a Sentence


I was using the word in its literal sense. The literal meaning of “know your ropes” is “to know a lot about ropes,” while figuratively it means “to know a lot about how to do something.” a literal translation of a book The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn't the literal truth.
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective

This quintessential supernatural horror film, featuring literal head-turning moments as a young girl is possessed by the devil, spawned many demon-centric movies to come 3. Kayleigh Roberts, Marie Claire, "13 Classic Halloween Movies to Screen for a Proper Fright Fest," 5 July 2018 That judicial approach typically involves a more literal interpretation of the Constitution as compared to broader rulings such as Roe. Author: Hope Yen, Ken Thomas, Anchorage Daily News, "Collins would oppose court pick with Roe v Wade 'hostility'," 2 July 2018 At a time of political divisiveness when views of the news industry itself have become starkly polarized, many jumped quickly to speculation about whether the metaphorical war on the media had become shockingly literal. Baltimore Sun,, "Terror, heartbreak in a newsroom," 29 June 2018 Nothing like trying to do your job, live your life and pretend to be normal when suddenly stress turns you into a literal hot mess of jerky hand movements and twitches. Danielle C. Belton, The Root, "A List of Every Stress-Related Illness I’ve Ever Had, Ranked From Horrible to ‘I Think I’m Dying’," 27 June 2018 The fastest way to keep the beach mood light and bubbly is with literal bubbles. S.pellegrino®, Bon Appetit, "A Beach Picnic, L.A. Chef–Style," 25 June 2018 Twitter is a harassment platform for literal Nazis and increasingly unpleasant place to spend one's time. Eric Limer, Popular Mechanics, "When Is Instagram Going to Blow It?," 6 June 2018 Tech companies are throwing nearly all of them at the wall (and in the case of soundbars, that metaphor is sometimes literal) at a heady clip. Dieter Bohn, The Verge, "Polk Command Bar review: As seen near TV," 3 July 2018 Roberts' impending ascension to both the literal and figurative center of the court represents an about-face from two years ago. Richard Wolf, USA TODAY, "Chief Justice John Roberts inherits expanded role as the Supreme Court's man in the middle," 29 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'literal.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of literal


14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2


1622, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for literal


Middle English, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin litteralis, from Latin, of a letter, from littera letter


see literal entry 1

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Dictionary Entries near literal





literal contract



Statistics for literal

Last Updated

9 Sep 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for literal

The first known use of literal was in the 14th century

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More Definitions for literal



English Language Learners Definition of literal

: involving the ordinary or usual meaning of a word

: giving the meaning of each individual word

: completely true and accurate : not exaggerated


lit·er·al | \ ˈli-tə-rəl \

Kids Definition of literal

1 : following the ordinary or usual meaning of the words I'm using the word in its literal, not figurative, sense.

2 : true to fact She gave a literal account of what she saw.

Other words from literal

literally adverb
literalness noun

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Comments on literal

What made you want to look up literal? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


alleviating pain or harshness

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