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 Soon Gabby is navigating a new friendship that keeps pulling her out of her comfort zone – literally – as her pal insists on investigating a local mystery. oregonlive, "7 books for kids and teens worth a look this summer," 9 July 2020 Every Wednesday afternoon, Jimmie Neko Ward spends a few minutes reclining in an anti-gravity chair in a salt room – literally a room whose walls are lined with salt bricks, the floor consisting of 6,000 pounds of pink Himalayan salt crystals. Michelle Matthews |, al, "Yoga is ‘superfuel’ to NFL player Jimmie Ward," 9 July 2020 Her costars Waithe and Lorraine joined director Simien and ESSENCE Entertainment Director Cori Murray in literally bowing down to Williams’s greatness. Keyaira Boone, Essence, "Vanessa Williams Received Her Flowers From Her 'Bad Hair' Castmates," 9 July 2020 By sixth grade, Patterson had her first college offer and there was no looking back for a girl that was often literally head and shoulders above the rest. Jeremy Price, The Indianapolis Star, "IU women's basketball transfer Danielle Patterson poised for leadership role on, off court," 8 July 2020 Cathcart's scenario may seem hyperbolic, but the point hits home—literally. Robert Hackett, Fortune, "WhatsApp leader: You don’t want us eavesdropping on you, right?," 8 July 2020 Other parts of the island, the trees are growing literally straight sideways out of the ground. National Geographic, "Episode 4: The Tree at the End of the World," 7 July 2020 So to some, scenes of brutality seemed to come almost out of the blue (pun intended)—an elephant if there ever was one, trampling on people for real—on their freedoms, yes, but also literally on their lives. Kc Cole, Wired, "Keeping Up With the Coronas—or Why the Virus Is Winning," 7 July 2020 In the 1800s, Black slaves were literally sold down the river. Scottie Andrew And Harmeet Kaur, CNN, "Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations," 6 July 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

12 Jul 2020

Cite this Entry

“Literally.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 13 Jul. 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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