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

When her works garner huge success, Colette strives to break out of the literal and metaphorical confines her abusive husband yields upon her. Sydney Odman, The Hollywood Reporter, "'Colette' Trailer: Keira Knightley Fights for Literary Ownership in Feminist Period Drama," 11 July 2018 Taylor’s vocals vibrate throughout K.T.S.E., but the album seems to lack the full force of her literal and proverbial voice. Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, "Teyana Taylor’s Music Has Matured, but Has Her Label?," 25 June 2018 The British are pondering the meaning of being a literal and political island. Carolina A. Miranda,, "The women at the helm of 2018's Venice Architecture Biennale and the unexpected generosity of design," 31 May 2018 Of course, Westworld has already given us a window into other kinds of immortality, both literal and abstract. Scott Meslow, GQ, "Westworld Season 2 Episode 4 Recap: My Immortal," 14 May 2018 The scents are made to emulate and conjure memories in a way that's always literal but creative, and Music Festival is a great addition to the growing collection. Tynan Sinks, Allure, "In Defense of "Festival Beauty," Even for People Who Hate Music Festivals," 25 Apr. 2018 Fourth of July nail art often gets a bad rap for being too literal, too kitschy, or too cheesy. Teryn Payne, Glamour, "The Best 4th of July Nail Ideas That Aren't Painfully Cheesy," 29 June 2018 The Valley Beyond turned out to be literal heaven, as both imagined and engineered by man. The Atlantic, "Westworld: Is This Now?," 24 June 2018 Not every suggestion was literal (many never received the federal conviction that would open a person up for such a pardon, and one is a fictional character) but all were thought-provoking. Time Staff, Time, "President Trump Is Looking for Suggestions for Pardons. So We Asked 7 Historians for Their Thoughts," 21 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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Statistics for literal

Last Updated

21 Oct 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).


something that serves to warn or remind

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