Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • adjective Conforming or limited to the simplest, nonfigurative, or most obvious meaning of a word or words.
  • adjective Word for word; verbatim.
  • adjective Avoiding exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment; factual; prosaic.
  • adjective Consisting of, using, or expressed by letters.
  • noun A letter or symbol that stands for itself as opposed to a feature, function, or entity associated with it in a programming language.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • Affecting or relating to a letter: as, literal errors, literal rhymes.
  • noun In printing, a literal error; that is, a wrongly placed letter; a misprint.
  • Consisting of, expressed by, or representing letters; alphabetic.
  • According to the letter of verbal expression.
  • Following the letter or exact words.
  • Exact; especially, mechanically precise: as, the too literal execution of an order.
  • Characterized by a tendency to regard everything in a matter-of-fact, unimaginative way: as, a very literal person.
  • Synonyms See verbal.
  • noun Literal meaning.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • adjective According to the letter or verbal expression; real; not figurative or metaphorical.
  • adjective Following the letter or exact words; not free.
  • adjective Consisting of, or expressed by, letters.
  • adjective Giving a strict or literal construction; unimaginative; matter-of-fact; -- applied to persons.
  • adjective (Law) a contract of which the whole evidence is given in writing.
  • adjective (Math.) an equation in which known quantities are expressed either wholly or in part by means of letters; -- distinguished from a numerical equation.
  • noun obsolete Literal meaning.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • adjective Exactly as stated; read or understood without additional interpretation; according to the letter or verbal expression; real; not figurative or metaphorical.
  • adjective Following the letter or exact words; not free; not taking liberties.
  • adjective uncommon Consisting of, or expressed by, letters.
  • noun programming A value, as opposed to an identifier, written into the source code of a computer program.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • adjective avoiding embellishment or exaggeration (used for emphasis)
  • adjective without interpretation or embellishment
  • adjective being or reflecting the essential or genuine character of something
  • adjective limited to the explicit meaning of a word or text
  • noun a mistake in printed matter resulting from mechanical failures of some kind

Etymologies

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin litterālis, of letters, from Latin littera, lītera, letter; see letter.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Old French literal, from Late Latin litteralis, also literalis ("of or pertaining to letters or to writing"), from Latin littera, litera ("a letter"); see letter.

Examples

  • The multinational energy and oil giant made the essence of the term literal by turning its exhibition hall on the Olympic Green into a monstrous Chia pet.

    Courtney Woo: The Corporate "Green Olympics": Sponsors Use Green Messaging in Their Pavilions

  • ‘Lateral thinking’ would be helped, too, by the neural arrangement in the right brain—the sideways extension of axons even makes the phrase literal rather than figurative.

    Mind Wide Open

  • ‘Lateral thinking’ would be helped, too, by the neural arrangement in the right brain—the sideways extension of axons even makes the phrase literal rather than figurative.

    Mind Wide Open

  • ‘Lateral thinking’ would be helped, too, by the neural arrangement in the right brain—the sideways extension of axons even makes the phrase literal rather than figurative.

    Mind Wide Open

  • ‘Lateral thinking’ would be helped, too, by the neural arrangement in the right brain—the sideways extension of axons even makes the phrase literal rather than figurative.

    Mind Wide Open

  • Nevertheless, I'm attracted to the term literal because it leads to another useful concept, "liberal" cartooning.

    The Comics Journal

  • She's "a girl cut in two," still infatuated with the man who rejected her, and Chabrol makes the title literal when she becomes part of a magic act in the final scene.

    The Seattle Times

  • But an alarm should sound whenever the word "literal" is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride "I just believe in reading the Bible literally" or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby.

    No One Reads the Bible Literally

  • The use of the word literal is so egregiously wrong, I thought perhaps it had to be on purpose.

    Is This Line From Claire Messud’s ‘The Emperor’s Children’ the Worst Line in a Book Published in 2006? « One-Minute Book Reviews

  • My rooskie translations for habeas corpus, by the way, can be rendered in literal English as “let it be so, that they shall present the soul,” and “(we decree) that thou should bring forth thebody.”

    The Volokh Conspiracy » PC

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