Literally Truly

Or, whence the Literalville Contradiction?

In the comments to LL’s repost of my “Literally Metaphorically” , Jeff Carney writes:

D-AW has missed the boat here. Don’t think I like Rush, but nowhere in the transcript we’re linked to does he contrast being literal with being figurative. He seems to equate being literal with being true.

Carney is right that Limbaugh is equating ‘literal’ with ‘true’, ‘actual’, ‘factual’ (he sometimes opposes Literalville to Fantasyland in his rants). In this post I want to think about this fact a little. First I’d like to note that it doesn’t affect my point, which is that equating ‘literal’ with ‘true’ goes beyond the literal bounds of the word. Partly it’s this shift that makes ‘I live in Literalville’ resemble the Cretan Paradox, which deals directly with truth vs. falsehood.

In normal usage, the truth condition of a statement is usually not determined by how figurative the statement is:

1. ‘I am on fire’

TrueFalse
LiterallyA part of my body or clothes is undergoing exothermic oxidation, accompanied by flames. No part of my body or clothes is undergoing exothermic oxidation, accompanied by flames.
Figuratively 1 (Metaphor)I am experiencing a string of successes.I am not experiencing a string of successes.
Figuratively 2 (Hyperbole)My skin feels extremely hot.My skin does not feel hot.

Note that for a given state of affairs you can tick several boxes, as long as they’re not on the same row. Being literally, truly on fire does not preclude you being metaphorically, truly on fire (if you’re a stuntman, perhaps). But equating ‘literal’ with ‘true’ upsets this:

2. ‘I live in Literalville’

TrueFalse
LiterallyI live in an incorporated town named Literalville.I don't live in an incorporated town named Literalville.
FigurativelyI reject all figurative language. Wait, what?I embrace figurative language.

So I think the Literalville Paradox does depend on a true shift in meaning in the usage of ‘literal’. Most of what Language Log has on ‘literally’ discusses its usage as an intensifier in a figurative context (‘I’m literally starving’ doesn’t usually deny that you’re using the classical figure of hyperbole). As OED3 defines it, it ‘indicates that some metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense’, similar to how ‘really’ functions unproblematically in this way. Using the above example:

3. ‘I’m literally on Fire’

TrueFalse
LiterallyA part of my body or clothes is undergoing exothermic oxidation, accompanied by flames. No part of my body or clothes is undergoing exothermic oxidation, accompanied by flames.
Figuratively 1 (Metaphor) I really am experiencing a string of successes.I am not experiencing a string of successes.
Figuratively 2 (Hyperbole)My skin really feels extremely hot.My skin does not feel hot.

Now, given all this, it’s still a pretty interesting facet of ‘literal’, ‘literally’ that it has shifted to overlap not only with the vacuous intensifying role of ‘really’ but also with the truth claim of ‘truly’, ‘actually’, ‘accurately’. Not that it’s a particularly surprising case of semantic drift: ‘literal’ connotes imaginative or interpretive restraint, and both liberal imagination and liberal interpretation can in some contexts lead away from the truth towards error, or to deception. The poet never lieth, but only because he never affirmeth.

For some time I’ve noticed that American political discourse, especially on the right, tends to reject concepts associated with connotation, figuration, symbolism, analogy, and metaphor. The ‘Literalville’ metaphor is only the most extreme and contradictory version of this. SCOTUS Justices are described as existing on a spectrum between ‘strict constructionist’ (also ‘originalist’ and ‘textualist’, both formalist terms which require some degree of ‘literal interpretation’ of the Constitution) and ‘loose constructionist’ (which implies a broader analogical process between what is described in the text and current states of affairs).  ‘Symbolic’ in a political and legislative context now often means ‘merely symbolic’, ‘without consequence’, or ‘detached from reality’. Limbaugh uses it in the last, most extreme inflection: ‘Remember: I live in Literalville, so symbolism doesn’t always do it for me. I need to know the facts about things’ [Transcript 13.12.10].

I wonder if this doesn’t bear some relation to the evangelical suspicion of the symbol, which may be doctrinal in origin but which has found its way into political discourse along with other religious and social preoccupations. The Southern Evangelical Seminary & Bible College statement of doctrine, for instance, is emphatic on ‘literalness’:

We believe in the special creation of the entire space-time universe and of every basic form of life in the six historic days of the Genesis creation record. We also believe in the historicity of the biblical record, including the special creation of Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of all people, the literal fall and resultant divine curse on the creation, the worldwide flood, and the origin of nations and diverse languages at the tower of Babel.

Here ‘literal’ (along with ‘historical’) is clearly used to mean ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘actual’ as opposed to ‘symbolic’, ‘figurative’, ‘metaphorical’, ‘representative of some other truth or reality’. This usage isn’t at all problematic when it’s modifying ‘progenitors’, but of course with ‘fall’ there is a problem, since that term (or any related idea) is never used in the Bible to describe the lapse (‘lapse’ is a related metaphor, but you need to go back to the Latin for its literal etymological meaning). Describing it as a ‘fall’ is already a metaphorical concept grounded in language, even if you believe in a real, historical, literal Garden of Eden. The poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78) may well have believed in such a place, but being a poet, he also knew how to literalize a metaphor properly, by embracing symbolic language not eschewing it. His poem ‘The Garden’ does this:

Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Stumbling on melons (Greek μαλον means ‘apple’; cf. Latin mālum), as William Empson and others discuss, is a poetic literalization of the trope that would have Adam’s lapse (his error, his slip or stumble), and the subsequent expulsion from Eden, termed the ‘Fall of Man’.

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