Monday, 1st September 2014

by Joshua Gaskell

The Uses of Literally, part 94

In between the apparently correct – ‘In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively’ (OED) – and the apparently incorrect – ‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing’ – is the use of literally that is predicated on the vehicle being (strictly) literally true of a different sense of the tenor. For example, yesterday I heard on Radio 4,

While the horizontal aspect [of the New York grid] might be monotonous, its vertical aspect is certainly not. And obviously the skyscraper system of Manhattan has literally elevated that to a fine art.

Skyscrapers do literally elevate people – ‘raise [them] above the usual position, or above the level of surrounding objects’ (OED) – but do not literally elevate a non-monotonous vertical aspect to a fine art. This kind of use of literally insists too much on the aptness of the metaphor, and is therefore less modest than an alternative like as it were, which openly acknowledges metaphoricity.