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In English there has been a recent popularization over the questionable use of the word 'literally'. It has been pointed out that it is a common informal usage (often called a mistake) in English of 'literally' as an intensifier rather than as a marker of non-figurative use, especially since it seems to be used non-literally by well-respected modern authors. There is a lot of evidence that it has been used non-literally literally for centuries.

"Literal", in English, is primarily used to imply 'exactly as spoken/written' so that when something is said that sounds like hyperbole, it will be taken as truthful rather than exaggerated.

But that situation also is semantically ambiguous in that things could seem truly exaggerated. And then, if one didn't know otherwise, the term 'literally' could be understood as an intensifier, and therefore taken in a non-literal manner.

It seems to me that there is nothing special about 'literal' in English that it should be the only language to exhibit such ambiguity leading to semantic drift.

The Romance languages all have variants of 'littéralement'. I'm wondering if a term is transparent (it says what it means) that it might be less open to semantic drift. But semantic drift happens all the time, so that may not be a barrier at all.

Is there any evidence in French, written or spoken, that the corresponding terms for 'literal' have figurative uses similar to English?

Has this phenomenon occurred in French and if so is it a long standing mistake or only recent?

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    It is exactly the same in French, as it says there " on utilise parfois littéralement avec le sens de « très, tout à fait »; cet emploi relève toutefois de la langue familière. Dans la langue soutenue, notamment à l’écrit, on dira plutôt, selon le contexte : absolument, complètement, entièrement, réellement, tout à fait, totalement, etc." – Laure May 17 '17 at 15:50
  • @Laure do you have any evidence (corpus examples) where the non-literal use has occurred? Any idea of how long this has happened in French? Molière? – Mitch May 17 '17 at 16:56
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    Near the bottom of this TLFi entry for 'littéralement' there are two examples of what appears to be this "par-extension" use (George Sand from 1855 and Marcel Proust from 1918). Ms Sand's use might qualify as a hyperbolic use (although one can be left with literally/absolutely nothing). As for Mr. Proust's use of it, I can't figure out exactly what he's saying (but that's literally always the case when I try to read his work). – Papa Poule May 17 '17 at 18:34
  • I literally agree. – Destal May 17 '17 at 22:12
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As a French national, I can confirm this is used in France in the same way thus making the same mistake. From personal experience only, I would assume it's recent (after 2000) as I've been using it for some times. My parents and other family members always told me that in the context I was using it, it made no sense at all. I used it to emphasize or to implicitly say "véritablement" (truly).

Borrowed from the latin word litteralis, from literra (letter), the adverb, authentified around the mid-15th century, means what is understood "word for word".

Looking at two renowned French dictionaries and two other sources, I found this:

Larousse

1) D'une manière littérale, à la lettre : Traduire littéralement.

1.i) In a literal way, to the letter: Translating literally.

2) Absolument, tout à fait : Il était littéralement épouvanté.

2.i) Absolutely, exactly/entirely: He was literally terrified.

Littré

1) D'une façon littérale. Traduire, expliquer littéralement. Il ne faut pas prendre littéralement ce qui ne se dit que par métaphore. "Rousseau, dans tous les soins qu'il prescrit à cet égard [au sujet de l'enfance] ne fait que suivre exactement le système de Locke ; il est vrai qu'il ne le cite pas, mais il le copie littéralement", [Genlis, Adèle et Théod. t. I, p. 85, dans POUGENS]

1.i) In a literal way. Translating, explaining literally. One should not take literally what is only said through/via metaphor. "Rousseau, in all the care he gives in this regard [in regards to childhood] is only following exactly the Locke's system; it is true that he's not quoting him, but he is copying him literally" , [Genlis, Adèle et Théod. t. I, p. 85, in POUGENS]

The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales (the national centre of textual and lexical resources) also mentions it can be used as a synonym of "absolutely": "Some time ago, when I had nothing, literally nothing, after having eaten for next to nothing, I was still lounging in my gondola" (Histoire de ma vie (Story of my Life), Sand). Far from any hyperbola.

L'Academie Francaise (The French Academy) has a section on "literally" where it warns not to use it as a superlative or in any emphatic way (e.g.: I'm literally exhausted -- I agree their example here contradicts the last Larousse example).

Here is a quote from Pensées (Thoughts) (1670) by Blaise Pascal:

Deux erreurs. 1. Prendre tout littéralement. 2. Prendre tout spirituellement.

Two mistakes. 1. Take everything literally. 2. Take everything spiritually.

As to why we're using this word wrongly, the newspaper Le Figaro blames the anglicism "literally" that was translated as "littéralement" in TV shows such as How I Met your Mother. I wouldn't take their word for granted.

I hope I was able to help. If not, my apologies!

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