I recently read an interesting short article on the use of the term “literally” that I want to share with you, then comment upon.
Two Misuses of “Literally”
“He literally knocked his head off.” No. If he had, the head would have rolled across the floor, separated from the body. “Literally,” in that case, is mistakenly used to intensify a figure of speech, but “literally” does not intensify the figure. It says “knocked his head off” is not a figure of speech but a true description of what he did.
Another misuse of “literally” has to do with word meaning. Someone says, “proskuneo ‘literally’ means ‘kiss the ground toward.’” No, proskuneo literally means “worship.” “Kiss the ground toward” is its etymology, how the word was formed. It is also an archaic meaning; as ancient Persians did literally fall on their faces and kiss the feet or hem of the robe of their deified kings. Etymology does not determine meaning; usage does. The New Testament frequently says, “They fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11; e.g.). “Fell down” is from a different original word, “worshipped” is proskuneo.
“Literally” does not intensify a figure. A word’s etymological meaning is not its “literal” meaning.
Preacher Talk (Vol. 27, No. 2—April 2012)
The first misuse of the term “literally” is typical in casual conversation. While irritating to those who are sensitive to the mangling of the English language, it is innocuous. However, defining biblical terms by their etymology, (or even their assigned dictionary definitions), without considering context, is extremely troubling as we seek to interpret God’s word.