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The hardest habit of all to break is the terrible habit of happiness.
Theodosia Garrison
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  • IPA: /ˈlɪtəɹəli/, SAMPA: /"lIt@r@li/


literally (not comparable)


not comparable

none (absolute)

  1. In the direct, word for word sense. With neither idiom nor metaphor.
    When my sewing kit fell off of the barn loft, I literally had to look for a needle in a haystack.
  2. (proscribed) Really, as an intensifier.
    • 1827: Sir Walter Scott, Chronicles of the Canongate
      The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried.
    • 1837, Abigail Goodrich Whittelsey and Samuel Whittelsey, The Mother's Magazine, S. Whittelsey
      They both literally slept in Jesus.
    • 1847: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
      Literally, I was (what he often called me) the apple of his eye.
    • 1850: Charles Dickens, David Copperfield.
      ...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.
    • 1894: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. a time when Europe was ringing with his name and when his room was literally ankle-deep with congratulatory telegrams...
    • 1895: Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure.
      It was literally teeming, stratified, with the shades of human groups, who had met there for tragedy, comedy, farce...
    • 1993: Wayne W. Dyer, Real Magic, p.193
      You literally become the ball in a tennis match, you become the report that you are working on ...
    • 1999 Oct 21: Ridley99, Re: 5 best comic artists ao all time, rec.arts.comics.misc, [1]
      He can literally turn the world upside down with his gift of perspective and vanishing points.
    • 2002: Norbert P. Psuty & Douglas D. Ofiara, Costal Hazard Management: lessons and future directions from New Jersey, p.247
      The summer populations of beach communities literally explode, and the local infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, waste hauling) either wear out or exceed their designed capacities more quickly.
    • 2004 Mar 18: Zelgadis, Re: Hello Newsgroup,, [2]
      He's just that bad that he was striped of his post count at one point, which caused him to literally explode into tears (hey, he even sent me an IM).

Usage notes

Literally is typically used as an intensifier in one of two ways -- to intensify phrases that are actually meant to be taken literally (e.g. "I had literally no duties or responsibilities") or phrases that cannot be taken literally in the context (e.g. "He was literally blown away by the news"). The second usage is proscribed, for instance by Wynford Hicks (2004, "Quite Literally: Problem words and how to use them", page 131), who writes "Don't use it when you don't mean it, they say. 'He literally exploded with anger' is absurd."




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