Literally and figuratively

The use of literally has been a frequent topic on this blog. Here is another contribution, from my MA student Iméne Walles, this time on Dutch.

The opposite of literally is figuratively. Of a sentence one could say ‘I meant it literally’ or ‘I meant it figuratively’, but it could also be the case that it is both ‘I meant it literally and figuratively’. Well, in Dutch, that is.

In that language,  the combination letterlijk en figuurlijk (literally and figuratively) is used a lot. One example is form Dutch late night talk show, RTL Late Night, in which Ronald and Michel Mulder talked about

de letterlijk en figuurlijk zenuwslopende ziekte multiple sclerose “the literally and figuratively nerve-wracking disease multiple sclerosis”.

But the phrase letterlijk en figuurlijk  is not only used to refer to the ambiguity of a word. The free daily newspaper Metro, for instance, recently wrote:

De band 5 Seconds Of Summer is letterlijk en figuurlijk hot in 2015 “The band 5 Seconds Of Summer is literally and figuratively hot in 2015“.

Do they mean that 5SOS really is hot in the literal and figurative meaning of hot? I don’t think so. It could be that two senses of the word hot are meant: attractive and popular, but neither of them is literal, in the sense that the boys would be having a fever.

I can’t help noticing an increasing use of letterlijk en figuurlijk as an intensifier in Dutch (as with literally in English) instead of referring to the ambiguity of the word it modifies. You might think that using letterlijk en figuurlijk as an intensifier is wrong. But I would rather call it an oxymoron, which the online version of the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines as “a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings“. When used together, as in the Dutch example letterlijk en figuurlijk, the result is a more emphatic meaning.

The boys of 5SOS are not just hot, they are not just really hot, they are perfectly hot. They are ‘hot’ (literally hot: attractive) and ‘cool’ (figuratively = the opposite of literally hot: popular) at the same time. They are literally and figuratively hot, but not ill. They are exactly as hot as a boy band should be.

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4 Responses to Literally and figuratively

  1. Inspired by this blogpost, I wrote the following sentence on my Fb page this morning: “NS levert letterlijk en figuurlijk half werk! Vanochtend kwam er een trein die twee keer zo lang had moeten zijn …”. An oxymoron as an intensifier!

  2. Gaston says:

    I quite agree, but I’m not so sure about it being ‘an increasing use’. I seem to remember frequently hearing it as long ago as my childhood. I’m 50 now.

  3. Bram says:

    Ever since this blog post, I have come across two instances of the phrase ‘literally and figuratively’ in English! In both instances the phrase was used, the user clearly meant to invoke the literal as well as figurative meaning of the word. It was not just as an intensifier.

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