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 description The 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 possible will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice— Norman Cousins

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 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.

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. See More
Recent Examples on the Web The Tex-Mex chain brought back their Holiday Collection, and the options are straight fire — literally. People Staff, Peoplemag, 3 Aug. 2022 Which is literally the exact opposite of the desire and focus of the new leadership, who expressly oppose creation and release of big branded IP on the streaming service and who instead mandate a theatrical approach with major content brands. Mark Hughes, Forbes, 2 Aug. 2022 This issue is literally a matter of life and death for those sickened by exposure to toxins emitted from burn pits. Dean Obeidallah, CNN, 1 Aug. 2022 Ole Bratt Birkeland shot the film with handheld camera in available light, giving it an impromptu feel (and a lot of scenes that are literally very dark). Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, 1 Aug. 2022 There are thousands of people who literally don’t have cars. Lisa J. Huriash, Sun Sentinel, 31 July 2022 There are still literally Vietnam veterans who are appealing to the government for help for their exposure to Agent Orange. ABC News, 31 July 2022 Throughout the globe — north, south, east, and west — there are literally four people who know my name. Elizabeth Berry, Woman's Day, 29 July 2022 The pursuit of Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto by Tuesday’s trade deadline is literally a game changer. Lance Pugmire, USA TODAY, 29 July 2022 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.

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

6 Aug 2022

Cite this Entry

“Literally.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.

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