lit·​er·​al | \ ˈli-t(ə-)rəl How to pronounce literal (audio) \

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)

Other Words from literal


literality \ ˌli-​tə-​ˈra-​lə-​tē How to pronounce literal (audio) \ noun
literalness \ ˈli-​t(ə-​)rəl-​nəs How to pronounce literal (audio) \ noun

Examples of literal in a Sentence

Adjective 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.
Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective What: Fashion with a capital F, as everyone took turns posing next to Saks mannequins and a literal tower of champagne cascading from the restaurant entrance. Faran Krentcil, ELLE, 17 Sep. 2022 In the case of the literal metro — as in the train — safety and, more importantly, perceptions of safety, have everything to do with stations that feel isolated from the city in purpose and design. Los Angeles Times, 17 Sep. 2022 But in historical fiction, the aim is to capture a story, so fidelity to literal facts and timelines is not always the goal. Emma Sarappo, The Atlantic, 16 Sep. 2022 After the intense, electric urban energy of Bangkok, Krabi — a southern province on Thailand’s Andaman Sea — was a literal breath of fresh air. Lily Radziemski, Washington Post, 16 Sep. 2022 Clearly, this light pollution had literal life-or-death stakes. Joshua Sokol, Scientific American, 16 Sep. 2022 The toppings: a literal heap of Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon; mozzarella, Romano, and Parmesan cheeses; and red sauce. Ali Francis, Bon Appétit, 16 Sep. 2022 Hecklers disrupted proceedings with shouts and taunts, councilors traded verbal barbs, and a literal brawl erupted outside the council chamber after the public was ejected from the meeting because of the interruptions. Danny Mcdonald,, 14 Sep. 2022 The schedule includes everything from Christmas markets and historic home tours to a literal lobster trap Christmas tree lighting. Hannah Jeon, Good Housekeeping, 14 Sep. 2022 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun David was contending with two friendship deaths—one literal, the other metaphorical. Jennifer Senior, The Atlantic, 9 Feb. 2022 Tony’s asphyxiation of Christopher makes the metaphorical literal. Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture, 5 Oct. 2021 See More

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.

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

Adjective and Noun

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

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Time Traveler for literal

Time Traveler

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

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Dictionary Entries Near literal



literal contract

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Statistics for literal

Last Updated

19 Sep 2022

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 27 Sep. 2022.

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More Definitions for literal


lit·​er·​al | \ ˈli-tə-rəl How to pronounce literal (audio) \

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

More from Merriam-Webster on literal

Nglish: Translation of literal for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of literal for Arabic Speakers


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