Line by Line


posted February 24, 2014

Tags: catechism, definitions, Summa Theologica

One of the most misused words on the entire Internet is "literally."

One problem is that it gets used as a generic intensifier. It's almost as if people have gotten so bored with figurative language that, in order to restore some of the shock value that hyperbole once had, speakers have to add another layer of exaggeration by claiming (figuratively, of course) that the figure of speech is not figurative.

I hope it's obvious why this is a problem: If the same exact word, in the same exact context, can mean either one thing or the exact opposite of that thing, the word becomes useless. How am I supposed to tell whether it means that something that sounds like an exaggeration really isn't, or the speaker just wants the exaggeration to be really impressive? The word no longer clarifies anything.

But that's an obvious enough point. Aside from examples (of which I'm sure your favorite search engine will help you find plenty), I don't think there's much more to say about that.

Instead, I want to focus on a use of the word that, while more correct, is also much more troublesome.

Whenever there's a debate about some aspect of Christianity, there's a decent chance that the subject of how literally to interpret some passage of the Bible is going to come up. When you involve a Catholic in such a debate, things get confusing. The exchange might go like this:

Atheist: You believe that people do bad things because of a talking snake.

Catholic: That's a Fundamentalist reading of scripture.

Atheist: Okay, how do Catholics interpret it?

Catholic: We interpret the bible literally.

Atheist: But you just said...!?

Catholic: Ah, you were interpreting the Bible literalistically. We interpret it literally, meaning according to what the author originally meant!

Okay...really? Let's consult some dictionaries. Here's Wiktionary:

  1. (speech act) word for word; not figuratively; not as an idiom or metaphor
    When I saw on the news that there would be no school tomorrow because of the snowstorm, I literally jumped for joy, and hit my head on the ceiling fan.
  2. (degree, proscribed) used non-literally as an intensifier for figurative statements: virtually (often considered incorrect; see usage notes)
  3. (colloquial) Used as a generic downtoner: just, merely.
    You literally put it in the microwave for five minutes and it's done.

Let's try another one. Here's

  1. in the literal or strict sense: What does the word mean literally?
  2. in a literal manner; word for word: to translate literally.
  3. actually; without exaggeration or inaccuracy: The city was literally destroyed.
  4. in effect; in substance; very nearly; virtually.

Okay, one more. Here's Merriam-Webster:

  1. in a literal sense or manner : actually <took the remark literally> <was literally insane>
  2. in effect : virtually <will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice Norman Cousins>

I don't see anything that suggests that "literally" means the interpretation intended by an author. The author might have intended the words to be taken either literally or figuratively.

So where does that meaning come from? I don't know if this is the original source, but apparently "the literal sense of Scripture" is a long-established turn of phrase that means exactly what our hypothetical apologist uses it to mean: The meaning of the text intended by its author. Thomas Aquinas uses the term this way in the Summa Theologica (if we ignore the fact that the Summa wasn't written in English):

I answer that, [...] that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things singified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. [...] Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of Holy Writ is God, Who by one act comprehends all things by His intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in Holy Writ should have several senses.


Reply to Objection 3. [...] Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power.

(Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 10)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also explains the term, albeit somewhat vaguely:

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being divided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. [...]

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and conveyed by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Scripture are based on the literal."


119 "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment[...]."

(Catechism of the Catholic Church 115-119; all deletions mine)

In other words, the "literal sense" means whatever the words themselves are intended to mean (whether that's "literal" by the usual definition or not), whereas the spiritual senses are those in which that meaning itself symbolizes something else.

So why is this troublesome? In fact, it's just a more specific application of using "literal" to mean "figurative." Sure, it's specific enough that it's not outright useless, unlike the word as defined by the dictionaries. But it's still confusing insofar as the "literal sense" may or may not actually be "literal" by the usual definition.

What makes it more troublesome than the (*ahem*) definition that arose from simple misuse is the fact that it's really, really important that, when debating religion (or any other topic for that matter) everyone knows what everyone else means by what they say.

The bottom line is this: The point of words is to make other people understand what we mean. If our words aren't doing that, then we may as well steep effect questionnaire positive ranch southern cord series legally tell. (If you know what I mean.)