Literal - figurative

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Literal and Figurative are terms used in the study and learning of language to distinguish between the two levels of meaning which many words have. The literal meaning of a word is what it means in the simplest terms. To 'give a ball a kick', for instance, is to swing the leg and propel the ball forwards by striking it with the foot at the end of the swinging leg. (All clear? Note how valuable simple words can be. There is no easy substitute for them.) The figurative meaning is when we use the word in an imaginative way, or one which is NOT literally true - that is, not true in the basic and original sense of the word. When a tutor (or manager) says "He needs a good kick in the pants", he or she does not mean in modern Britain anything to do with 'swinging the leg and propelling the bad student forward by striking him with the toe'. (At least, we presume not.) The figurative meaning is more like "He needs a sudden shock, and a punishment. He deserves to suffer." What precisely is meant is left to the imagination of the person hearing it.

A word like 'gold' can be used both literally and figuratively. Literally, gold is a yellow metal, with the atomic symbol Au, of atomic number 79 and atomic weight 196.96655. To a chemist, it is identifiable by a series of experimental methods which will not be described here. Figuratively,'gold' has many meanings - nearly all highly favourable. When the proud father says he has a "golden child", he does not mean that he or she is made of yellow metal, atomic symbol Au, etc. He means that s/he is a person of great value. Sometimes the parent might say that the child "is as good as gold". This is, in a literal sense, stupid . Gold is not 'good' in the sense intended, of virtuous - or bad. What is meant is that the child is behaving very well. To take another example, the literal meaning of 'tiger' is "a large wild animal, which eats meat, is shaped like - but bigger than - a domestic cat, and which is coloured in black and orange stripes." (A biologist knows a more precise meaning.) When we call a famous golfer 'Tiger Woods', we do not mean he is striped orange and black, nor that he is a wild animal. We use his nickname figuratively (like most nicknames).

All language develops by the use of words in new ways, to express new meanings. (How many people now think that 'driving a car' has anything to do with using a stick to make cattle, or horses, move more quickly? But that was the sense of 'to drive' under two hundred years ago.) Be aware of the possible alterations in meanings as writers use words literally and figuratively.

  • There are many ways of using words figuratively. Linguists differentiate between different Figures of speech. AWE has a category devoted to them at, and a course to teach you more about them at Figures of Speech course.

If you are a learner of a foreign language, particularly, be aware of the abbreviations in your Dictionary - usually lit. and fig., in English - and adjust your understanding accordingly. Sometimes, a word in its literal sense will be meaningless in the passage you are reading. When you think about it figuratively, however, it can suddenly make good sense.

See also literal (etymology).