All English Words are Always Metaphors

Now my ire is raised! Let’s look at that oatmeal comic, shall we? First of all, the first line of it says that “Literally means actually or without exaggeration.” So according to the link you provided, the idea of correcting someone saying they should have use “actually” instead of “literally” is requesting a synonym.

But let’s get a little deeper into the obsession that people have with the word “literally.” Have you every thought about words that people use to amplify meaning?

Really - Let’s see… “Real” as in, actual or factual, or in the real world
Very - Look like “verily” at all to you? Root Latin word verus meaning “true”
Truly - True

That’s right, in the history of the English language, words that mean “truthfully” have morphed into words we use to mean “extremely.”

This is a fairly obvious transition. We commonly conflate the ideas of true and extreme because we use them in ways like “Jem is truly outrageous”. Obviously “Jem is outrageous” would also convey the idea that what you are saying it true. It is almost never necessary to indicate that a fact you are conveying through speech is meant to be regarded as true. So saying that something Jem is “truly” outrageous serves only to highlight that you might have been prevaricating or exaggerating otherwise, that is, when other people merely say “outrageous” they might not mean it to the same degree you do. “I really love you,” instead of “I love you.” “I’m really hungry” instead of “I’m hungry”, “I really want to punch that guy” instead of “I want to punch that guy.” Explaining that you mean what you say is the same thing exaggerating the meaning even when you don’t actually mean what you say.

So it makes the leap to being a word people use to exaggerate. “I’m really starving,” would be interpreted by any sensible person as an exaggeration, not an statement of literal fact about low caloric intake leading to medical complications.

But there’s more. Once on word has been firmly entrenched as a way of exaggerating it loses it’s punch. Everything is “really” something, really is boring, so new words take up that role. “Literally” is just the one of many. If someone says, “That was so funny I literally pissed my pants!” they were most likely employing a metaphor.

To say that they can’t be employing a metaphor because their sentence contained the word “literally” is the equivalent of saying that my sentence “I had to quickly go to the store,” can’t be true because I said the sentence slowly. The word “quickly” is not a metaword that applies to what I am saying, it’s an adverb that applies to the verb “go”, and “literally” works exactly the same way.

“Literally” is not a magical word handing to us from God on High to usurp the meaning of the surrounding text. It’s just a word like any other - it can be used metaphorically and it’s usage can shift over time.

When someone says, “I literally pissed my pants,” they are not using any words in the sentence incorrectly, it’s just that what they said is not true.

Complaints about “literally” being used in correctly are pure snobbery, with a healthy dose of “the kids these days” mixed in.

(Check out that last sentence - If the snobbery is “pure” then how can it have anything else mixed in?!? If that sounds stupid and pedantic, that is exactly how stupid and pedantic complaining about “literally” is)


Whoah -

The idea of the correction isn’t to prescribe a term of emphasis; it’s to point out that ‘literally’ is only a valid term of emphasis when it doesn’t actually mean ‘figuratively’ (gotta love the irony in that).

But yeah, I take your point - because we like to exaggerate, we’re faced with this arms race for superlatives.

Although I think you’re missing something here…

To say that they can’t be employing a metaphor because their sentence contained the word “literally”

I say they shouldn’t use ‘literally’ as a metaphor, because we’re running out of synonyms for literally that don’t require meta-validation, eg ‘I literally meant ‘literally’ there’. Pretty sure @jeremy_ and @NickyG would agree.

I honestly can’t see how the word “actually” is any different than the word “literally” in that particular case. If we are to use the most strict definition of the words, using “actually” would mean, “It is in truth that it takes 2 minutes to install” and using “literally” would mean, “I do not exaggerate when I say it takes only 2 minutes to install.” That seems like a pretty wild point to try to correct someone on to me.

(I hope that this is all coming across in the playful spirit I mean it, even though I am literally filled with burning hate for everyone who complains about figurative use of the word “literally.”)

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Despite having to italicise ‘literally’ there?

See my edit.

This is why some people on the witness stand will say “I affirm” rather than “I swear”, because the latter makes it seem that normally you don’t tell the truth so you have to make a point of indicating that THIS TIME you will, in fact, tell the truth. The former is just pointing out that yes, of course you will tell the truth, as you always do.


I actually agree with @Humbabella

If you say “I pissed myself laughing,” by logic alone you are already saying that you actually pissed yourself laughing.

And yet we know that the person is exaggerating, because this is a very common story-telling technique among humans. We don’t require you to say “figuratively” every time you say something metaphorical or you exaggerate.

By logic alone, a computer couldn’t tell the difference between “I pissed myself laughing” and “I literally pissed myself laughing.” From the computer’s point of view, both imply that you are stating a true fact. We know full-well that the first is an exaggeration – we don’t apply logical rules to it, or take it at face-value. Why then do we insist on applying logical rules to the second, and take it at face-value?

So why do people get annoyed? I think people dislike it because it’s like when a comedian says “…and then – and this is actually true – she fell over!!!” We’d be annoyed if it weren’t actually true, because the comedian is stepping out of character for a moment to insist that the thing is actually true. But we merely dislike it in that case because we feel tricked. When my grandfather insisted that a story of his really was true, we still didn’t necessarily believe it, and he didn’t expect us to. It was simply a way of making the story better, by pretending that it really was true.

Likewise, the difference between “I pissed myself laughing” and “I literally pissed myself laughing” is the difference between a storyteller saying “I could have died!!” and “I really, really, honestly could have died!!” In both cases (depending on the context) we can understand that it’s an exaggeration. But the second is simply stretching the exaggeration further, for rhetorical or comedic effect.

But what if you literally pissed yourself laughing and wanted to tell someone?

You have the same problem as the storyteller who says that something really, really is true: you either believe them or you don’t. Mostly, though, it’s a question of being in character or not. I think the point is that it’s clear (to all humans) when someone is telling a story like a storyteller (with exaggeration, etc.), and when they step back and say “now wait, honestly, this part is actually true.”

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I’m not sold on the hand-waving about synonyms all being equal. They have individual connotations.

And ‘literally’ has linguistic, documentary connotations, unlike, say, ‘really’. It’s the biggest antonym of ‘figuratively’ around, so the irony of using it figuratively is too much for me.

Whoa, I didn’t say all synonyms are equal, I spelled out exactly what the distinction was in this case and said that I didn’t see how that was really different. Synonyms are rarely true synonyms, but the difference between saying something literally takes 2 minutes to install and it actually takes 2 minutes to install is next to nothing. If anything, I prefer the former as “literally” is at the top of the heap of the arms race of words-that-mean-true.

You might say something like, “Then I pissed myself laughing, but I don’t mean that as an expression, I literally lost control of my bladder and urinated in my pants.” You might want to use a tone that suggests you are talking about something embarrassing in confidence. Fifty-fifty they believe you.

Nah. I reckon I’d be pretty stoked about it. I mean, what a pisser!

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Oh yes, I forgot to mention the bit about how people have been using literally in this way for a long time, and one of the “kids” that need to get off the literally-snobs lawn is Mark Twain.


Although I personally agree with @Kimmo on this argument, I refuse to become Sisyphus and pretend I can stop the evolution of the world’s most volatile language–English–because my opinion is right, dammit! Particularly in the internet age. People are going to say what feels comfortable to them, and all logic is out the window. Language in the age of communication is mob rule. Full stop.

Consider that the proper, logical English idiom for the sentiment also expressed as “guess again” is “you’ve got another think coming.” That’s “think” with a K. Not “thing.” Now, maybe you already knew this, but you must be aware that you are in the tiniest minority. In my 40 years as a native English speaker (and one that identifies as a “word nerd,”) I’ve never said it correctly. Moreover, I’ve never heard anyone else say it correctly, nor have I seen anyone write it correctly.

Even though, thanks (?) to the internet, I now know that “you’ve got another thing coming” is illogical, there is absolutely no way I’m going to start saying it “properly” as “think.”

In 50 years or so, there will no longer be any debate about the usage of “literally.” It will be in the dictionary and the school textbooks as a metaphor–assuming it isn’t already.

My favourites:

Its “toe the line” not “tow the line.” The idea is that you would stand in a horizontal line with everyone else, hence have your toes on the line. The idea that you are hauling the same line (rope) as everyone else has the exact same metaphorical meaning.

“The die is cast” was an expression that I and many people I knew thought of as meaning that a die (singular of dice) has been cast (thrown) - thus the meaning being that the result was up to fate or chance now. The actual meaning is the die (as in mould) has been cast (as in set in final form) - so basically that the outcome could not be changed. But of course, both mean “there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

But I actually say “think” in “another think coming.” You just need to awkwardly pause.


Er, no. The quote attributed to Caesar and recorded in Latin and Greek has no ambiguity - it definitely refers to the gambling kind of die.

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The French version is “les jeux sont faits” and is heard in Monaco gambling houses to this day.

Aha! So I’ve been misled once again! Anyway, I can still enjoy the double meaning, even if one of them is entirely in my head.


hmm. I suppose people could have been saying it correctly to me and I didn’t know due to that syllable not being emphasized within that particular phrase. but I still say the correct usage is in the minority. good on you for knowing it.

I knew about the spelling of “toe the line” but not it’s derivation. However, I was fully aware of “the die is cast,” including it’s canonization due to it is what Caesar said as he led his troops across the Rubicon into Rome (though, to my mind, his utterance of such a killer line at such a historic moment is likely to be apocryphal.)

EDIT: guess I shoulda read Buccaneer’s post before I replied (∘=̴⃙̀˘︷˘=̴⃙́∘)