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?

  • 6
    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."
    – None
    May 17, 2017 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, 2017 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, 2017 at 18:34
  • I literally agree.
    – Destal
    May 17, 2017 at 22:12
  • 1
    In many English dictionaries, the definition of literally has literally included figuratively since 2013. Collins and American Heritage in 2016. Merriam-Webster since 2011. Related on EL&U. Plus people using it for about 200 years.
    – livresque
    Dec 15, 2022 at 23:57

2 Answers 2


As a French native, 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:


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

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

  1. Absolument, tout à fait : Il était littéralement épouvanté.

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


  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 Trésor de la langue française informatisé 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!


Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue fraçaise (éd. Le Robert, sup. A. Rey, 2011) dit début 20e pour l'emploi familier pour « rigoureusement, tout à fait ».

  • Sadly I do not have immediate access to that dictionary. Is there an on-line reference that has a similar entry? (I don't think wiktionary is very reliable)
    – Mitch
    Dec 20, 2022 at 15:01
  • @Mitch If there's one I can't find it, sorry. Online I'll mostly look at the TLFi or Littré, like with the other answer. In the TLFi, if we set aside Sand's since it could be literally be literal, we're left with Proust and that matches but that's mere confirmation, not a statement. The DHLF with Rey is highly authoritative and canonical imho, but I'm no expert. I can't imagine any other work trumping it. Dec 21, 2022 at 2:18
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    @Mitch Well, maybe the FEW but I didn't find anything special there: lecteur-few.atilf.fr/index.php/page/lire/e/158279 Dec 21, 2022 at 5:43

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