The Long History of the Figurative 'Literally'—and 8 Great Writers Who Used It

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, James Joyce, and Charlotte Bronte all used 'literally' in a figurative sense.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, James Joyce, and Charlotte Bronte all used 'literally' in a figurative sense. /

Few things anger members of the self-appointed grammar police more than when people use the word literally in ways outside its strictest definition: “In a literal manner or sense,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a meaning that has existed since the 15th century. When Merriam-Webster updated its definition of the word in 2013 to include the sense “in effect : virtually,” for example, reader comments ranged from “Definition 2: the dictionary is literally wrong” to “This is literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.”

Unfortunately for the grammar police, the word literally has been used as a hyperbole or intensifier for at least three centuries, with its earliest figurative use dating back to 1769. And as Merriam-Webster noted in a 2016 post about the brouhaha, “Its inclusion in a dictionary isn’t new either; the entry for literally in our 1909 unabridged dictionary states that the word is ‘often used hyperbolically; as, he literally flew.’” Even the hallowed OED includes a figurative definition for literally.

Everyone from lexicographers to grammarians to famous authors used literally in a figurative sense for hundreds of years without issue. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, according to linguist and Mental Floss contributor Arika Okrent, that the figurative use of the word became controversial, thanks to English language guides penned by writers like Ambrose Bierce and H.W. Fowler.

Their guides, which skewered hyperbolic uses of words like literally and phenomenally, influenced “the attitudes of generations of editors and teachers,” Okrent notes. (“Literally for Figuratively … It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable,” Beirce wrote in 1909’s Write It Right. Fowler said in 1926’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage that the figurative use of literally “makes honest traffic in words impossible.”) The internet has also played a role in the ire surrounding the figurative use of literally.

The complaints don’t seem to bother the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster, who had this to say about literally’s expanded definition: “We … have included this definition for a very simple reason: a lot of people use it this way, and our entries are based on evidence of use.” That’s a descriptivist take on the word—which reflects how people are actually using it—rather than a prescriptivist take, which focuses on the rules that govern how language “should” be used. All told, the history of the figurative literally has quite a lot in common with that of the singular they.

Still hesitating to use literally in a figurative capacity? Perhaps it will ease your mind to know that plenty of famous authors have done it in their most beloved works. Here is just a handful of them.

1. Louisa May Alcott // Little Women

Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott. / Culture Club/GettyImages

“At four o’clock a lull took place, and baskets remained empty, while the apple pickers rested and compared rents and bruises. Then Jo and Meg, with a detachment of the bigger boys, set forth the supper on the grass, for an out–of–door tea was always the crowning joy of the day. The land literally flowed with milk and honey on such occasions, for the lads were not required to sit at table, but allowed to partake of refreshment as they liked––freedom being the sauce best beloved by the boyish soul.”

In the last chapter of Little Women, Alcott writes about the lives of the surviving March women as they pick apples on Marmee’s 60th birthday. Jo married Professor Bhaer and runs a school for boys with him, some of whom she brought to the apple harvest. Alcott uses literally to emphasize how wonderful the day was for those boys. 

2. Charles Dickens // David Copperfield

Charles Dickens English Novelist 19th Century
Charles Dickens. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

“Perhaps you know, Miss Trotwood, that there is never a candle lighted in this house, until one’s eyes are literally falling out of one's head with being stretched to read the paper.”

Dickens uses literally as an intensifier in both Nicholas Nickleby (“ ‘Lift him out,’ said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit”) and David Copperfield. In the latter, he has Mrs. Markleham use the word to highlight the thriftiness in the home.

3. Jane Austen // Sanditon

Jane Austen - portrait of the English novelist as a young woman.
Jane Austen. / Culture Club/GettyImages

“The Hilliers did not seem to feel the storms last winter at all. I remember seeing Mrs. Hillier after one of those dreadful nights, when we had been literally rocked in our bed, and she did not seem at all aware of the wind being anything more than common.”

In this unfinished novel published after Austen’s death—which deals with the threat that those from formerly wealthy families feel toward the nouveau riche—literally is used by the character Mrs. Parker (a character who married into an “old money” family that’s no longer wealthy) in reference to the people now occupying the home that had been in her husband’s family for generations. The use of literally highlights the divide between the genteel type of people Mrs. Parker sees her family as, and the rougher type of people she sees the Hilliers as.

4. James Joyce // Ulysses

James Joyce portrait Irish writer ( Iris
James Joyce. / Culture Club/GettyImages

“So they passed on to chatting about music, a form of art for which Bloom, as a pure amateur, possessed the greatest love, as they made tracks arm-in-arm across Beresford place. Wagnerian music, though confessedly grand in its way, was a bit too heavy for Bloom and hard to follow at the first go-off but the music of Mercadante’s Huguenots, Meyerbeer’s Seven Last Words on the Cross and Mozart’s Twelfth Mass he simply revelled in, the Gloria in that being, to his mind, the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat.”

Joyce is another repeat offender, using literally in the figurative sense in more than one work. In this passage from Ulysses where Leo Bloom and Stephen Dedalus discuss music, Joyce uses literally to convey how much Mozart resonates with Bloom emotionally.

5. Charlotte Brontë // Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Brontë / Rischgitz/GettyImages

“Mr. Rochester continued blind the first two years of our union; perhaps it was that circumstance that drew us so very near, that knit us so very close: for I was then his vision, as I am still his right hand. Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.”

In the final chapter of Brontë’s debut novel, Jane describes her life after she returned to Thornfield Hall and married Edward Rochester, who had lost his sight and right hand in a fire during the years after her departure. She says “literally” to draw attention to the fact that he could not see and had to rely on Jane’s sight.

Brontë also used literally in the figurative sense in her novel Villette: “[S]he took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits.”

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald // The Great Gatsby

American Author Francis Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

“Daisy’s face was smeared with tears, and when I came in she jumped up and began wiping at it with her handkerchief before a mirror. But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.”

Fitzgerald uses literally twice in his famed classic about the American Dream. The first time, in chapter two, the word is used in its original sense: Narrator Nick Carraway talks about how Tom Buchanan forced him to meet his mistress, even though he didn’t want to, saying, “I went up to New York with Tom on the train one afternoon, and when we stopped by the ashheaps he jumped to his feet and, taking hold of my elbow, literally forced me from the car.”

In chapter five, Fitzgerald uses literally in the figurative sense: Nick describes what happened when he witnessed Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan see each other for the first time since Gatsby had been deployed nearly five years earlier, and Daisy married someone else—linking Gatsby’s exhilaration to light.

7. Robert M. Pirsig // Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

“The second phase emerged as a result of normal intellectual criticism of his lack of definition of what he was talking about. In this phase he made systematic, rigid statements about what Quality is, and worked out an enormous hierarchic structure of thought to support them. He literally had to move heaven and earth to arrive at this systematic understanding and when he was done felt he'd achieved an explanation of existence and our consciousness of it better than any that had existed before.”

When he discusses the two phases of Phædrus’s inquiries into the meaning of “Quality,” Pirsig explains that the second involved him creating a large structure to support his findings, using literally to emphasize the great amount of effort it required.

8. Mark Twain // The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Portrait of Mark Twain
Mark Twain. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

“And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.”

In arguably the most famous episode of the novel, Tom’s Aunt Polly makes him whitewash her fence as punishment for sneaking out and fighting, and he tricks other boys into not only completing his chore, but giving him valuables for the honor. By the time the fence is painted, Tom is owner to a bounty of trinkets including marbles, firecrackers and a tin soldier. Twain uses literally to emphasize how flush Tom feels in the moment.