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Literally yet again

September 5, 2012

In David Bellos’s interesting, entertaining book about translation, Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, he states: ‘Studies of large corpora of recorded speech have shown that the majority of uses of “literal” and “literally” in English are figurative; similar results would no doubt be extracted from written texts in all European languages’, (p110) and gives as his authority Michael Israel, from Coulson’s and Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk’s The Literal and Non-literal in Language and Thought (2005). I can believe it; but I can’t understand it. If someone says (to take Bellos’s own example) ‘It was literally raining cats and dogs’, what exactly do they mean? They don’t mean it was literally raining cats and dogs. They mean it was figuratively raining cats and dogs. They are using literally as a figure of speech for figuratively. But no, that’s not quite right. They don’t want to draw attention to the fact that their use of the expression is figurative. They want to stress how hard the rain was. Bellos says that this is just one of a thousand cases where words can be used to mean their opposites, ‘depending on what you use them to mean’. It’s true that words are frequently used to mean their opposites when the intention is to be ironic. But the intention here isn’t irony. It’s emphasis. I still think there’s something very odd about that.

PS My review of Bellos’s book will be in the Independent on Sunday on 23rd September.

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One Comment
  1. Imagine how frustrating it’d be if it literally did rain cats & dogs, & you were trying to tell somebody what you’d seen.

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