‘If I can’t have him, my heart would literally break’. Depending on what sort of person you are, the sight of the word ‘literally’ in the previous sentence might have amplified the speaker’s sentiments with a satisfyingly bold, indicative thrust or sparked a paroxysm of indignation, causing you to wail: ‘you are using LITERALLY when you mean FIGURATIVELY’. The sentence derives from episode two of Netflix’s new flagship black-comedy drama A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017). Much of the humor of this installment turns on the villain Count Olaf’s frequent repetition of this supposed error. The programme’s narrator Lemony Snicket gives the following well-meaning advice: If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening… If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters.

While parents might be pleased that the show provides children with a surreptitious grammar lesson, they would likely be less gratified to learn that Snicket’s advice is transgressed frequently by celebrated writers, unsupported by the term’s etymology and, indeed, arguably encourages a misguided and narrow-minded understanding of language itself.

Even acknowledged masters of English style have made use of ‘literary’ as an intensifier. Over three hundred years ago, the English poet and satirist Alexander Pope observed wistfully to a correspondent that ‘[e]very day with me is literally another yesterday, for it is exactly the same’.[1] In her unfinished 1817 novel Sanditon Jane Austen presents the character Mrs. Parker recalling a stormy night ‘when we had been literally rocked in our bed’.[2] It is more than likely that Austen here is breaking the rule outlined by Snicket deliberately, since in her earlier novel Mansfield Park (1814), the elder daughter Maria Bertram asks ‘[d]o you mean literally or figuratively?’ when her suitor Henry Crawford describes the estate she is likely to inherit as ‘a very smiling scene’.[3] In Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), Charles Dickens describes how the cruel, one-eyed, Yorkshire schoolmaster Wackford Squeers ‘literally feasted his eyes, in silence’ upon the sickly, dim-witted Smike.[4] Even the modernist master and scrupulous reviser James Joyce deploys ‘literally’ for emphasis. The first sentence of his short story The Dead reads: ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet’.[5] Likewise, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Nick Carraway observes how Jay Gatsby ‘literally glowed’ on his reunion with Daisy Buchanan.[6] This latter usage helps us the effect of using literally to place an accent on a metaphor. By asserting that Gatsby ‘literally’ glowed, Carraway claims that Gatsby’s joy was so intense that it appeared to almost suspend the physical laws of nature, transforming a figurative expression into a literal truth.

Importantly, the etymology of ‘literally’ also contradicts the belief that this adverb should never be used figuratively. ‘Literal’ itself appeared first in English in 1398, to indicate primarily the practice of copying texts word-for-word. Over the ensuing century, the word came to be applied to literal interpretations of scripture, as opposed to symbolic readings. For instance, whereas an allegorical interpretation might view the vine in Salm 80 as a symbol of Israel and its relationship with God, a literal approach would view it simply as a reference to the climbing woody-stemmed plant used often in gardens. Gradually, ‘literal’ started to be used in legal circles for judgements based on a word-for-word interpretation, rather than the imputed sprit, of the law. And from the late 1600s, people began to use the word more generally, to refer to the actual meaning of a word not any metaphorical meanings with which we might associate them. Very soon after that, as the quotation from Alexander Pope in the previous paragraph shows, people started to use ‘literally’ to stress a metaphorical expression. What is important about this history is that it shows that the base-word is not ‘exactly as described’ but ‘according to the letter’.[7] When we use literally to refer to something other than exactly the same letters, we are using the word figuratively. So, if you use the phrase ‘I am literally jumping for joy’ when you are actually leaping the air, you are already using literally figuratively. Therefore, Snicket’s argument cannot hold.

It is clear, then, that in modern usage ‘literally’ can have two, completely contradictory meanings: ‘actually, without exaggeration’; and also ‘in effect, virtually’. In this manner, it is not alone: ‘sanction’ can, for instance, mean ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission for an action; ‘clip’ can mean ‘to fasten’ or ‘to detach’; and ‘overlook’ can mean ‘to supervise’ or ‘to neglect’. Those who object to using literally to stress a metaphorical assertion seem to regard ‘literally’ as a special case, of the one word that cannot be used figuratively, allowing it only to refer to the ordinary or primary meaning of a word or phrase. Such critics seem opposed to the complexity and waywardness of language itself. As Lemony Snicket himself might intone, A Series of Unfortunate Events may literally be an entertaining family show, but it is not a figurative grammar book, since the advice it gives about the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’ is literally horseradish.

[1] Alexander Pope, Letter to Mr. Cromwell, March 18 1708, Alexander Pope, The Works of Alexander Pope, William Roscoe (ed.) (London: Longman, Brown and Co., 1857) Vol. IV, pp. 91-2 92.
[2] Jane Austen, Sandition and The Watsons: Austen’s Unfinished Novels (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2007) p. 16.
[3] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814) (New York: The Athenaeum Club, 1892) p. 131.
[4] Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: Works of Charles Dickens, Globe Edition (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876) p. 231.
[5] James Joyce, Dubliners (1914), edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 138.
[6] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925), Ruth Prigozy (ed.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 71.
[7] Information from: Liam McCarthy, ‘Literally Speaking’, www.researchgate.net, accessed 17 March 2017.