lit·​er·​al·​ly | \ ˈli-tə-rə-lē How to pronounce literally (audio) , ˈli-trə-lē, ˈli-tər-lē \

Definition of literally

1 : in a literal sense or manner: such as
a : in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression He took the remark literally. a word that can be used both literally and figuratively
b used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or descriptionThe party was attended by literally hundreds of people.
c : with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly The term "Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French.
d : in a completely accurate way a story that is basically true even if not literally true
2 : in effect : virtually used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possiblewill literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice— Norman Cousins

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Frequently Asked Questions About literally

Can literally mean figuratively?

One of the definitions of literally that we provide is "in effect, virtually—used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible." Some find this objectionable on the grounds that it is not the primary meaning of the word, "with the meaning of each individual word given exactly." However, this extended definition of literally is commonly used and is not quite the same meaning as figuratively ("with a meaning that is metaphorical rather than literal").

Is the extended use of literally new?

The "in effect; virtually" meaning of literally is not a new sense. It has been in regular use since the 18th century and may be found in the writings of Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, James Joyce, and many others.

Is the extended use of literally slang?

Among the meaning of literally is one which many people find problematic: "in effect, virtually—used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible." Neither this nor any of the other meanings of literally is what we would consider slang. This sense has been in standard use by many esteemed writers since the 18th century.

Examples of literally in a Sentence

… make the whole scene literally glow with the fires of his imagination. — Alfred Kazin, Harper's, December 1968 Even Muff did not miss our periods of companionship, because about that time she grew up and started having literally millions of kittens. — Jean Stafford, Bad Characters, 1954 Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry … than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. — James Joyce, Dubliners, 1914 … yet the wretch, absorbed in his victuals, and naturally of an unutterable dullness, did not make a single remark during dinner, whereas I literally blazed with wit. — William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch, 30 Oct. 1847 Many words can be used both literally and figuratively. He took her comments literally. He's a sailor who knows his ropes, literally and figuratively. The term “Mardi Gras” literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French. The story he told was basically true, even if it wasn't literally true.
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Recent Examples on the Web Advocates for women’s equality had worked outside the mainstream and some of their most visible efforts were literally outside, including marching and protesting. Washington Post, "A new exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House isn’t actually in the house," 6 Oct. 2020 Good luck with that one - models are literally all over the map. Paul Douglas, Star Tribune, "Drama-Free This Week While Gulf Coast Braces for Major Hurricane Delta," 6 Oct. 2020 The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three astrophysicists Tuesday for work that was literally out of the world, and indeed the universe. New York Times, "Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to 3 Scientists for Work on Black Holes," 6 Oct. 2020 Actually, visitors literally have been there since the beginning of the calf’s life. Dewayne Bevil,, "SeaWorld: Baby dolphin born in front of theme-park visitors," 6 Oct. 2020 This team is literally a miracle onside kick recovery away from being 0-4. Dallas News, "Grading the Cowboys: This Dallas team appears to have its identity, and there’s nothing good about it," 4 Oct. 2020 Living in Gilbert, there's a Walmart literally ten minutes away and Target is an eight minute drive away. Erin Stone, The Arizona Republic, "'It makes me so angry': First-time voters want leaders to act now on climate change," 2 Oct. 2020 The pigment payoff is insane, and there is literally no way to apply them incorrectly. Tatjana Freund, Marie Claire, "Byredo's New Makeup Line Is Absolutely Dazzling," 1 Oct. 2020 In the middle of the keyboard is a small red nub, or TrackPoint, that puts controlling the mouse pointer at your fingertips — literally. Jason Cipriani, CNN Underscored, "The best laptops of 2020," 1 Oct. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'literally.' 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 literally

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for literally

see literal entry 1

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Time Traveler for literally

Time Traveler

The first known use of literally was in the 15th century

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Statistics for literally

Last Updated

16 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Literally.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

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More Definitions for literally


How to pronounce literally (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of literally

: in a way that uses the ordinary and usual meaning of a word
used to stress that a statement or description is true and accurate even though it may be surprising
: with the meaning of each individual word given exactly

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Comments on literally

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