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.

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 Very early on, a deliberate decision was made to organize professionally as a business, one of the first in a creative economy that literally didn’t exist at the time. Alex Ritman, The Hollywood Reporter, 9 Sep. 2023 Population: Austin larger, more diverse than Salt Lake City Austin has nearly five times as many people and is literally larger than Salt Lake City — 319.94 square miles compared to 110.34, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Megan Banta, The Salt Lake Tribune, 8 Sep. 2023 About a 30-minute drive from Phoenix in Downtown Chandler — and a quirky area tradition since 1957 — the community centerpiece is, quite literally, a pile of nearly 1,000 tumbleweeds formed into a tree shape, sprayed with white paint, dusted with 65 pounds of glitter, and adorned with 1,200 lights. Travel + Leisure Editors, Travel + Leisure, 8 Sep. 2023 Obviously, this is a more difficult problem in Beverly Hills, and Pride’s answer was to literally bring the New York staff with him. Jason O'Bryan, Robb Report, 8 Sep. 2023 Our favorite follows spent this week chasing happy trails—some more literally than others. Grace McCarty, SELF, 8 Sep. 2023 The head of Europe’s largest airline was standing in Brussels next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president, when two climate activists literally showered him with cream pies. Paige Hagy, Fortune, 8 Sep. 2023 Celebrate 75 years of Cheetos with a cheesy (literally) birthday cake from the iconic bakery. Bryce Jones, Better Homes & Gardens, 7 Sep. 2023 Sign up for the Book World newsletter The itinerant story is a challenge of pacing, literally and literarily. Ron Charles, Washington Post, 7 Sep. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'literally.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

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 1 Oct. 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
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