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Kafka, Literally

March 27, 2013 | by


Earlier this month, after it was reported that several prominent dictionaries had expanded their definitions of literally to include “figuratively” as an informal usage, grammar-sensitive commentators launched into another wave of condemnation of the word’s expansive use.

“The dictionaries have begrudgingly bowed to the will of the grammar-averse public,” wrote The Week. “As anyone who paid attention in grade school knows, ‘literally’ means ‘in a literal or strict sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense,’ and is the opposite of ‘figuratively,’ which means ‘in a metaphorical sense.’”

Criticisms of the word’s unorthodox use are, strictly speaking, accurate. They reflect well-founded fears that society is coming to care less about clear and beautiful linguistic expression. So I often worry that I might be alone in my enjoyment of the nonsensical images created when the word is misapplied. For me, the usage can introduce gratifying little flashes of surrealism into everyday conversation.

Just think of Joe Biden’s remark last September: “We now find ourselves at the hinge of history, and the direction we turn is not figuratively, it’s literally in your hands.” Here Biden is ambitiously making two metaphors concrete: both that history can have an actual hinge and that this can be in someone’s hands. This remark conjures, for me, an image of the vice president heroically grappling, both hands (perhaps amid a howling thunderstorm), with a mighty vaulted door glowing iridescent with the sum of human destiny. It gives me a tickling look at the vice president’s imagination and his sense of the palpability of something as abstract as world history.

Intentionally or not, Biden’s usage messes with some very basic linguistic circuitry. In effect he is going beyond mere metaphor, pulverizing it and making it real. This severs the links of analogy that our minds rely on for language to remain safely within the bounds of reality. Such dismantlement creates illogical and often impossible images in the mind’s eye.

Franz Kafka nimbly blurred lines between analogy and actuality. In his stories, what would be hyperbolic metaphor already exists in real life. In “In The Penal Colony,” the military law by which prisoners live is truly inscrutable; for punishing breaches of this gibberish code, the illegible text is carved with needles on prisoner’s bodies until death. In The Trial, the court’s tyrannical and mysterious meddling has permeated all corners of the city: its proceedings and punishments can physically occur in residential tenements and attics, even the closets along the halls of Joseph K.’s office building—anywhere and everywhere.

Rather than misusing literally to construct these scenes, Kafka builds entire settings that upstage descriptive metaphor. Yet in The Metamorphosis—in which Gregor Samsa, who carries out the vermin-like existence of a traveling salesman serving the debts of his parents, turns into an cockroach—Kafka purposely misuses the word. After Gregor’s well-meaning sister removes the furniture from along the walls of his bedroom to allow Gregor to more freely crawl along the walls and ceiling; “the sight of the bare walls literally made her heart bleed,” Kafka writes. (In lieu of any knowledge of German, I’m taking Joachim Neugroschel’s translation of the story at face value.) The sort of literalized metaphor that dictates the impossible story is shrunk down to a simple turn of phrase.

In The Trial, Kafka misuses literally again. Chiding his lawyer for not helping him enough in the face of the Court’s all-encompassing hold, Joseph K. says, “this was hardly adequate assistance for a man who feels this thing encroaching upon him and literally touching him to the quick.” The Court had not yet actually groped Joseph K. in a sensitive, bodily place, as the archaic phrase would indicate, but rather has made his life miserable through continuous harassment and defamation.

Like in The Metamorphosis, in both The Trial’s overall aesthetic and specific language, Kafka confounds analogy and reality. These two tactics appear parts of the same ultimate strategy. 

Far from sounding careless, Kafka’s usage appears a calculated component of his surrealist project. Even for those not attempting a great modernist novel, the effect is possible in everyday conversation. “She literally exploded with anger” is a commonly mocked example of the word’s misuse. Although it’s admittedly cliché, it still generates a gratifying cartoonish flash for me: the person in question actually blows to pieces, which is funny and also descriptive.

What make this and other misuses of the word satisfying is the images they create. To say “this is literally the worst food I’ve ever had” or “he is literally insane” does not generate an interesting scene but rather uses literally as a mere intensifier. The word’s misuse seems to lose its power when dealing with abstraction.

Perhaps if we embrace the dictionary’s adoption of the word’s informal use, it should be in a qualified sense. The rule of thumb could be simple: that if the word’s misuse doesn’t create an interesting picture, it’s probably best to use another adverb or adjective.

Whether we like it or not, dictionaries have taken a big step toward cementing the informal literally into our language. If it is really here to stay, at the very least, people could be encouraged to correctly misuse the word. With enough awareness it could someday become accepted that, rather than sowing grammatical decay, certain misuses of the word can bring to our language elements of joy.

Spencer Woodman is a New York–based writer who mainly covers labor issues. You can follow him on Twitter.




  1. Ted Hash-Berryman | March 27, 2013 at 11:34 am

    This post is literally Kafkaesque.

  2. Tom r | March 27, 2013 at 11:58 am

    The Dead by Joyce starts with a neat moment ‘Lily the caretakers daughter was literally run off her feet’. But I reckoned Joyce was inflicting description with the relevant characters tone (misusing literally happens a lot here in Dublin)

  3. GZ | March 27, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    Kafka’s usage seems highly pertinent to the ‘literally’ discussion, and I find the tone of this post very agreeable. It is not, however, particularly valuable to cite a single translation. Better to post a German excerpt with some explication or at least some alternate English translations for comparison.

  4. Robert | March 27, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    An “Intensifier” – a word devoid or stripped of real meaning used to make te speaker ‘feel’ like they are making a stronger point. Useful, because we are no longer satisfied that saying what we mean is enough.
    Makes ‘literally’ the same as ‘f-ing’.

    “This is the worst f-ing food I’ve ever had.”
    “He is f-ing insane.”

    And we are f-ing killing words by the dozens to fuel the response to our linguistic failures.

  5. CDarcy | March 27, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I love the essay, but I think your first example is a little off. Here’s the original German: “…ihr bedrücke der Anblick der leeren Wand geradezu das Herz;”

    The “geradezu” is a generic intensifier and can mean, among many things, “really,” “positively,” or “virtually.” So the phrase translates directly to “The sight of the bare walls downright oppressed her heart.”

    Neugroschel’s translation is more poetic, but it’s he who misuses “literally,” and not Kafka, probably to make it seem as colloquial as the original phrase.

  6. Christopher M | March 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    I’m baffled by this constant hate on the figurative use of “literally”. Are you coming for “real” and “really” next? “That kid I was babysitting for was a real handful.” Sound the alarm bells. I don’t understand why it doesn’t occur to the complainers that, when you use a metaphor, you’re more-or-less *by definition* saying something that isn’t true. Adding “literally” doesn’t change the truth conditions of the sentence any more than adding “It is true that” to the beginning of a sentence does. It’s a metaphor either way. Whether or not it’s an elegant word to use in a particular context is another question, and toward the end this post gets nicely to the issue of when it’s a good idea.

  7. GZ | March 27, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you CDarcy – that was very elucidative. Your point reminds us this ‘literally’ debate regards a culturally specific and temporally bound quality of language rather than the deep mechanics of metaphor.

    Sorry to digress from the original post but I can’t resist: Those outraged by the use of literally as intensifier are playing the conservative role by rote. The novel front of language will always offend them and their reactionary descendants will come to defend that very front once it grows old and respectable.

  8. RF | March 27, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    I once researched “literally” and found that the literature that it refers to is the Bible. I suppose “by the book” may have a similar history. Since the Bible contains a mixture of history, parable and fantasy, I’d say that the definition of “literally” is open to interpretation.

  9. Death Zen | March 28, 2013 at 2:31 am

    Yes, exactly what CDarcy said. English speakers frequently use the word “literally” instead of “virtually” these days, and Neugroschel has made the same (somewhat ignorant) error in this translation — more than once, in fact. Don’t blame Kafka, Mr. Woodman, and don’t ever take a translation at “face value.” Not in public, anyway.

  10. bob | April 2, 2013 at 7:56 am

    It seems odd to demonstrate misuse of English by using a translated work.

    You’d be much better off quoting Jane Austen, John Dryden, Mark Twain, Alexander Pope and Charles Dickens in your attempt to fix this 400 year old wrong.

  11. Kaufmann Block | April 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Poor use of Kafka here, as CDarcy shows. “Geradezu,” one of Kafka’s go-to words, is “virtually,” and FK doesn’t use it coyly. It almost makes the sense of “literally” seem impossible by indicating something, yet pulling back. Theway it’s used in The Metamorphosis passage, behind “Herz,” seems to suggest it’s modifying the heart even more than “made it bleed” (which is also a bad translation of “bedruecke.”) Kafka also liked the word “scheinbar,” or “seemingly;” and even when using something like “really,” (eigentlich), he would add, as in his story The Verdict, “but even more really…” (noch eigentlicher).

  12. Paul | April 3, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Just to second what another commenter said… The German text says nothing about “literally.” That’s an introduction by the translator, and it’s not a good one. I’d expect either the author or the editor of a publication as prestigious as the Paris Review to actually glance at the German before basing an entire article on a wrong notion.

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