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American Collections blog

15 August 2013

Literally, a blog post

A friend emails, angry with rage, with the news that the Oxford English Dictionary has updated its definition of 'literally' (in 2011) to include the sense of ‘used for emphasis rather than being actually true’. This slippery slope began  c. 1769, when Frances Brooke penned the following line for Emily Montague: 'He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies', as the online OED reveals.  (It also points out that this sense is colloq.*)  In 1876, Mark Twain took up the empathic baton in  Adventures Tom Sawyer: 'And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.'  More recently (2008), a warning shot was fired in The Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana): '"OMG, I literally died when I found out!" No, you figuratively died. Otherwise, you would not be around to relay your pointless anecdote.'

Fired up by access to some of our online resources, I visited Early American Fiction 1789-1850 and, literally, stumbled across this from Emerson Bennett, in his Leni-Leoti; or, Adventures in the Far West (1849)

In a few minutes I had completely recovered
from my swoon; but it was a long
time before either of us could master his
emotion sufficient to hold conversation.
We looked at each other, pressed each
other by the hand, mingled our tears together,
and felt, in this strange meeting,
what no pen can describe, no language
portray. We had literally been dead to
each other---we who had loved from childhood
with that ardent love which cements
two souls in one---and now we had come
to life, as it were, to feel more intensely
our friendship for the long separation.

It is true: they have great doctors in the Far West. [MJS]

* It also includes the advice, belt-and-braces style: 'Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’)'

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