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 Its mission: giving a safe space to those who push the boundaries of good taste, literal and otherwise. David Fear, Rolling Stone, 21 June 2022 The object that gives Kamala her powers is a bangle from her nani, a literal and physical connection to her culture and heritage. Katherine Singh,, 16 June 2022 Such legends can be both literal and metaphorical, Dr. Hikuroa said. New York Times, 1 June 2022 Anxiety was the theme of Joyce Kim’s Art of Public Speaking collection, which captured the physical effects of the condition in ways literal and poetic. Vogue, 23 May 2022 The matchup with Seattle will be a fight – literal and otherwise – to the end. Samantha Meese, oregonlive, 6 May 2022 An easy way to immediately feel more grounded in the most literal sense is to take your shoes off and feel the earth—the grass, the sand, the soil—with the bottoms of your feet, Kamau says. Carolyn L. Todd, SELF, 8 June 2022 In a literal sense, cowboy boots can be tricky to work into your wardrobe. Shelby Ying Hyde, Harper's BAZAAR, 30 May 2022 Horrible, but also wonderful; an outrage, a revelation, and in the literal sense of the word, an ecstasy. Kent Russell, Harper’s Magazine , 25 May 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

26 Jun 2022

Cite this Entry

“Literal.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 28 Jun. 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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