15 Jun 2006

Either Literal or Actual

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Before I got sidetracked by vagueries, I was actually checking out a variation on the ongoing reanalysis of literal(ly) to mean "figurative(ly)" (i.e., the opposite of literal in its traditional sense).

The usage I mean is most familiar in contexts such as

"I skipped breakfast and lunch, so by dinner I was literally starving to death."

Usage books object to this construction on the grounds that the speaker here is certainly not actually starving. But it's easy to see such constructions as simple hyperbole, which of course speakers deploy all the time.

The question is whether the speaker intends the expression as exaggeration or has actually reanalyzed the word's meaning, thinking that literal means figurative. In sentences such as the one above, it's not really possible to tell, since either reanalysis or exaggeration could explain the sentence. Indeed, a simple substitution of "virtually" or "metaphorically" in the sentence above actually weakens the intended emphasis, so even if reanalysis has occurred, a sense of exaggeration remains.

But yesterday I ran across a usage where there can be no doubt that the word's meaning has completely changed for the writer.

I was thumbing through one of the nursing magazines that my wife gets. Not one of the ones to which you must subscribe but one of the free ones that mostly consists of job advertisements with a few articles thrown in for spice. (Yeah, I know, but I'll reach for any reading material when on the toilet.) In an article about "angels of death" (i.e., heath-care professionals who kill patients, I found the following:

Meanwhile, a marginal and potentially dangerous nurse can, and often does, get away with either literal or actual murder, just because she is willing to ingratiate herself to her superiors.

Working Nurse, June 5, 2006, p. 15

Here we have the adjective literal rather than adverb, which is itself unusual. And the either...or construction leaves no doubt that literal is being used in contrast with actual.

This construction is not common. Google gives only one result each for {"either literal or actual"} and {"either literally or actually"}.

From a post on sciforums.com is a clear parallel:

i look at it thisa way: when you look at how the --(i will say the Westrn mind, for now, though i know duality stretches further afield)--mind works it usually has two opposing positions----polar relators, like dry and wet, good and bad, life and death etc.....we can also include time and eternity. and then it usually with some of these opposites seeks to do away with, either literally, or actually etc...one side of the equation. example some religions hope to escape time and live eternally....?

The other one is here, and looks like another instance of reanalysis, although the context is a bit difficult to be certain about, particularly since this is a message on programming, and "literal" has a specific meaning within computer science that may be coloring things.

Removing either from the search yields more hits, but most of them are just otiose writing, where actual(ly) is used as a synonym for literal(ly).

However, on the same page that I found vaguaries, I also found this:

And you're an advocate of violence. So who's America's biggest enemy again? Please, tell me. I'm not the one throwing grenades, literal or actual.

Again, this only makes sense if we take literal to mean metaphorical, and the term has entirely lost the sense of exaggeration that it had, even in the form that usage manuals commonly complain about.