The History of the Non-Literal Use of “Literally”

By Samuel Phineas Upham

The meaning of the word “literally” has morphed considerably over recent years. It’s now commonplace to hear people use the word not to describe something happening “in a literal manner or sense” but to describe something that didn’t actually happen but is said to bring extra emphasis to a point. But while this alternative meaning is becoming widespread, it’s hardly new; The Guardian reports that it has literally been used that way for more than 100 years.

The first reported use of “literally” in a non-literal sense was in “The Chronicles of Canongate” by Walter Scott, which in 1827 described a house that had been “literally electrified” by theatrics, even though household electricity didn’t exist yet. Another early example is found in 1894 in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” where the detective is said to be “literally ankle-deep” in telegrams.

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Samuel Phineas Upham About the Author: Samuel Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Samuel Phineas Upham website or Facebook.

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