Literally – an overused word?

Is the word literally overused?
And how many syllables does the word literally have?
In this video we compare three different meanings of literally:
1. in a literal way, so with the exact meaning of the words you’re using
2. literally meaning ‘really’ or in ‘truth’
3. literally meaning virtually, when it’s used to exaggerate for effect
Meaning 3 is an example of hyperbole, and it contradicts meaning 1. So literally has opposite meanings.
Many people feel literally shouldn’t be used with meaning 3.
However many great writers in English literature have used literally for dramatic effect.
Also, literally is not the only English word that has two opposite meanings. We also look at the word wicked which can mean very good and very bad, and the verb to dust meaning to remove or to apply dust.

Is the word literally overused?

Did you hear the storm last night?
Yeah, lightning struck a tree across the street.
Really?
Yeah, I literally jumped out of my skin.
Is it possible to literally jump out of your skin?

We had an interesting question from a viewer called Peter.
He said, ‘I hear people saying literally for almost everything. It seems like an overuse of the word. What do you think about it?’
Literally. Some people use this word a lot.
You say literally. 4 syllables.
Literally. What do you say then?
I can say it the same way, but if I’m speaking fast, I say literally. Lit(e)-ral-ly. Three syllables.
Is that a British English thing?
I think so. But the next question is: what does literally mean?
It has three meanings.
The first one is in a literal way – so with the exact meaning of the words you’re using.

The traditional dress of Japan is a ‘kimono’, which literally means a ‘thing to wear’.
And here’s another Japanese word: karate. It literally means the ‘art of empty hands’.

If we mean something literally, it means according to the actual words.
The words with their most basic meaning.
OK, that’s the first meaning. What about the second?
It’s similar. Literally can mean something like ‘really’ or ‘in truth’.
We say literally when something is surprising and we want to emphasize that it is true.

There are literally more than three trillion trees on earth. That’s more trees than there are stars in the galaxy.
And here’s another surprising thing. Did you know that moose are good swimmers? They can literally swim six miles an hour. That’s about 10 kilometers an hour.

But how far can they swim?
A long way. They can keep going for two hours or more. They’re literally excellent swimmers.
So literally means ‘truly’ or ‘really’ in that sentence.
It was surprising, but there was no exaggeration.
Right. And the third meaning of literally is a little different.
That’s when we use ‘literally’ to emphasize things.
So surprising things again.
But this time, they’re not true. They’re false.
Let’s see how it works.

I can’t home yet. I’m literally up to my ears in work.
It was so funny.
We literally died laughing.
She’s literally as tall as a house.
The exam was so hard, his head literally exploded.
I’m so hungry I could literally eat a horse. Or maybe not.
I was so surprised you could have literally knocked me down with a feather.
I’m leaving.
No wait. It’ll literally only take me two seconds to get to you. See! Literally two seconds.

There’s a technical word for examples like this: hyperbole.
Hyperbole – four syllables. Hyperbole is when we exaggerate to add emphasis, or just because it sounds funny.
So let’s review the three meanings and see how they compare.
The first meaning is about the literal meaning of words and it’s exact and very factual. The second meaning is factual too, but this time it adds emphasis to say something is really true. The third meaning adds emphasis as well. But here, you change the original meaning of the words and exaggerate.
Notice that meaning one and meaning three are very different. They’re practically opposites. In meanings one and two, you’re being factual and telling the truth. But with meaning three, you don’t stick to the original meaning of the words. Instead of telling the truth, you exaggerate to get an effect.
Some people think it’s wrong to use literally with meaning three. It’s controversial and people have strong opinions about it. They think you should just use meanings one and two. But you’ll hear meaning three a lot in spoken English. It’s pretty informal and it’s becoming more frequent.
Is meaning three a new usage of the word?
People are using it more often but actually it’s an old usage. Lots of great writers in English literature have used it for effect.

It was used by great writers like Charles Dickens.
And F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And James Joyce.
William Thackeray.
And Charlotte Brontë

So do you think it’s OK to use literally to exaggerate?
Yes and no. Yes, because people use it that way and it’s becoming more common.
Oh right. You can’t stop language change.
Exactly. But also maybe no, because a lot of people complain about it.
Then perhaps use it, but just a little.
Yes, not too often.
I think people complain about when it’s used too much.
And also because they don’t like the idea that one word can have two opposite meanings.
But there are other words that do that. For example: wicked.
Yes, wicked can mean evil. So a wicked witch is very bad. But in informal English, wicked can also mean ‘very good’.
For example, we can say someone has a wicked sense of humor, and it means it’s very good.
There aren’t many words with two opposite meanings like this, but there are a few.
Let’s see if you can spot one.
To dust is an interesting verb because if you’re cleaning your house, you dust it. Dust means removing the dust.
But dust can also mean to cover something with sugar or flour. So if you’re baking cakes you can dust them with sugar.
So dust can mean removing or applying. It has opposite meanings.
Sometimes an English word can have two opposite meanings.
And literally is one of them.
So are we done?
Yes, that’s literally all we have for you this week.
If you’ve enjoyed this video please, share it with a friend.
And don’t forget to subscribe everyone.
See you all next week. Bye-bye.
Bye.

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