lit·​er·​al·​ly ˈli-tə-rə-lē How to pronounce literally (audio)
: in a literal sense or manner: such as
: 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
used to emphasize the truth and accuracy of a statement or description
The party was attended by literally hundreds of people.
: with exact equivalence : with the meaning of each individual word given exactly
The term "Mardi Gras" literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French.
: in a completely accurate way
a story that is basically true even if not literally true
: in effect : virtually
used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible
will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injusticeNorman Cousins
Should literally be used for emphasis?: Usage Guide

Sense 2 is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse. It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

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 meanings 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.

Example Sentences

… 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. See More
Recent Examples on the Web Plus, the dewdrop rhinestones are literally next level. Hannah Oh, Seventeen, 3 Feb. 2023 There have also been historic and systemic efforts to beat — literally, in some cases — the Spanish out of Latinxs. Los Angeles Times, 2 Feb. 2023 Your beverage choices are another place to make some greener swaps—literally. Nick Blackmer, Verywell Health, 2 Feb. 2023 The installation process is, literally, peel and stick. Maggie Gillette, Better Homes & Gardens, 31 Jan. 2023 But simultaneously, the world was literally at our fingertips and there was this massive cultural and political reckoning going on in this country, on so many different levels. Rebecca Aizin, Peoplemag, 31 Jan. 2023 There have been literally hundreds of these, and the best ones were compiled on this record. Mia Hughes, SPIN, 30 Jan. 2023 For most of her high school days, Clayton’s home was literally on the other side of town in the East Outer Drive and Dickerson neighborhood near City Airport. Scott Talley,, 29 Jan. 2023 Lorio’s sculptures are literally, if not philosophically, more substantial. Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, 27 Jan. 2023 See More

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.

Word History


see literal entry 1

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near literally

Cite this Entry

“Literally.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 30 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition


lit·​er·​al·​ly ˈlit-ər-(ə-)lē How to pronounce literally (audio)
: in a literal sense or manner : actually
the flying machine literally never got off the ground
: practically sense 2, virtually
literally poured out new ideas
Last Updated: - Updated example sentences
Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!

What Did You Just Call Me?

  • brown chihuahua sitting on the floor with squinting eyes looking at the camera
  • Before we went to her house, Hannah told us her aunt was a flibbertigibbet.
How Strong Is Your Vocabulary?

Test your vocabulary with our 10-question quiz!

Solve today's spelling word game by finding as many words as you can with using just 7 letters. Longer words score more points.

Can you make 12 words with 7 letters?