March 03, 2004


Matt Yglesias complains about the use of "literally" to mean "metaphorically." I think that, in most cases, this reflects a non-cancelable implicature. To say

(1) Howard Dean started a wildfire in American politics

is to flaunt a maxim of Quality (the one that says "Don't say false stuff," my copy of Grice is at home). So we reinterpret as (1) as metaphorical. Now, in

(2) Howard Dean literally started a wildfire in American politics

"literally" seems to cancel the implicature. Except that (2), taken literally, is still so obviously false that it makes more sense for the listener to reinterpret "literal" as figurative than to take (2) literally. The violation of Quality is so blatant that it outweighs two reinterpretations.

That's the problem with the case Dimmy Karras cites in Matt Y's comments: When you say

(3) This business is literally a gold mine

the literal interpretation of (3) does not flout Quality, at least not enough to outweigh the "literally," and so it makes sense to think that the business is about extracting gold from the ground.

(The official Opiniatrety on this, BTW, is that it's still annoying. "Literally" does not add anything to the sentence. It would be better to say "really," but people would rather use a two-bit word than one that makes them sound like Moon Unit Zappa. "Really" kinda sounds like it should mean the same thing as "literally"--how it got to be a degree modifier is a story for another day.)

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 3, 2004 12:52 PM

Non-philosophical question. Does this trace back to David Cross' stand up comedy CD?

Posted by: Clayton at March 3, 2004 04:50 PM

Delayed answer: no. I'm not sure I know who Cross is--is he the guy who hangs over the Thames in a glass box?

The "literally" thing has been kicking around for a bit--I first bruited my suggestion here.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at March 5, 2004 02:08 PM