Oh, I know, I know. “David Silva literally floats around the pitch”; “In his youth, Michael Owen was literally a greyhound.” “That’s not what ‘literally’ means, you dolt,” the snobbish middle-class football fan (me) screams at his television as Jamie Redknapp, patron saint of literalism, abuses the word once more. But, sadly, Jamie Redknapp is right, and I am wrong.
It’s a topic of national conversation this morning because it was brought up on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, the radio show which literally sets the news agenda for the day. It was in turn responding to Nick Clegg saying that people are “literally in another galaxy” over tax, to the audible horror of John Humphrys.
The guys on R4 were saying that this has happened to words before; the word “quite” used only to mean “precisely”, “thoroughly” – “I am quite sure” – and now it has, through language inflation, picked up the meaning “somewhat”. But what they didn’t seem to mention is that the word “literally” has been used to intensify figurative statements for literally centuries. In Little Women (published 1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote “the land literally flowed with milk and honey.” Dickens wrote in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): “His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone”, and “‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit.” Frances Brooke wrote in The History of Emily Montague (1769) that “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.” There are many other examples, and I point you towards the ever-excellent Language Log and this lovely Slate article on the topic.
And nowadays the word is not, really, used to mean “non-metaphorically” as much as you might think. Again returning to Language Log, it points out that Richard Dawkins, a habitual “literally”-user, used it frequently in The Greatest Show On Earth, in contexts such as: “A tree-ring clock can be used to date a piece of wood, say a beam in a Tudor house, with astonishing accuracy, literally to the nearest year.” Now, he is not implying that “to the nearest year” is a metaphor, but nor would it need stating – “it would be weird to substitute ‘non-figuratively’ or ‘non-symbolically’ or ‘non-metaphorically'” in that case, LL’s Mark Liberman points out. (“A tree-ring clock can be used to date a piece of wood, say a beam in a Tudor house, with astonishing accuracy, non-metaphorically to the nearest year.”) “Literally” is just doing the same work as “really” or “honestly” or “actually”, emphasising the truth of the statement, not its non-metaphorical nature.
So we’re wrong to criticise Jamie Redknapp for saying “literally”. Words only mean what people understand them to mean, and no one thinks he means that David Silva can levitate; and even if we are obsessed with etymology and past use, the word has not meant solely “non-metaphorical” for centuries, if it ever really did. We can say we don’t like it – I, for example, think that there are plenty of words which mean “really” or “very much”, and only one word which does the work “literally” does, and it’s nice to keep these things separate. But in the end it’s just taste. And, what’s more, it’s a shibboleth in the second-oldest sense of that word: like pronouncing it “haitch” or using “impact” as a verb, it tells those of us who are snobbish that this person is Not Like Us. So, before you literally get on your high horse about “literally”, remember that you’re wrong. Literally, and actually, wrong. And Jamie Redknapp is right.