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In English there has been a recent popularization over the questionable use of the word 'literally'. It has been pointed out that it is a common informal usage (often called a mistake) in English of 'literally' as an intensifier rather than as a marker of non-figurative use, especially since it seems to be used non-literally by well-respected modern authors. There is a lot of evidence that it has been used non-literally literally for centuries.

"Literal", in English, is primarily used to imply 'exactly as spoken/written' so that when something is said that sounds like hyperbole, it will be taken as truthful rather than exaggerated.

But that situation also is semantically ambiguous in that things could seem truly exaggerated. And then, if one didn't know otherwise, the term 'literally' could be understood as an intensifier, and therefore taken in a non-literal manner.

It seems to me that there is nothing special about 'literal' in English that it should be the only one to have such ambiguity leading to semantic drift.

Has this phenomenon occurred in German?

The Germanic languages all have variants of 'buchstäblich' or 'wörtlich' which sound a little closer to 'word for word'. I'm wondering if a term is transparent (it says what it means) that it might be less open to semantic drift. But smantic drift happens all the time, so that may not be a barrier at all.

Is there any evidence in German, written or spoken, that the corresponding terms for 'literal' have similar figurative uses?

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    Sure. A lot of people use "im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes" as a generic intensifier rather than to stress a literal meaning. – Kilian Foth May 15 '17 at 13:53
  • @Killian Do you have any literary or plain web examples like that? Goethe would be optimal! – Mitch May 15 '17 at 13:55
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    You may also take a look at wortwörtlich. – Pollitzer May 15 '17 at 19:00
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Indeed. You will find examples where buchstäblich is used in the primary sense of literally, and others where it is used as an intensifier.

Der amerikanische Präsident hat das Land buchstäblich im Chaos versinken lassen.

Here buchstäblich is used as an intensifier. Why do I think so? Because given the nature of chaos, it is impossible to define when or where exactly it begins. So buchstäblich here cannot mean "literally", rather it is an intensifier.

Der 2017er Haushalt ist buchstäblich unverändert gegenüber dem von 2016.

Buchstäblich is used in its primary sense. The budget for 2017 is exactly the same as the budget for 2016, probably even with the same figures per line item.

Sie war buchstäblich geplättet von seiner Dichtkunst.

Clearly an intensifier. The girl would hardly be ironed in the literal sense. She is more likely being overwhelmed (or excited) by what she had seen or heared. Thus, buchstäblich is an intensifier here.

Das ist buchstäblich das größte Pferd, das ich je gesehen habe.

I am not sure with this one. Is buchstäblich an intensifier here? Or does it mean "take my statement at face value, it is indeed the largest horse I have ever seen"?

Interestingly, although I have noticed the ongoing discussion about literally which is being held literally everywhere (hihi), I have not seen a discussion about the proper or improper use of buchstäblich in Germanistan. A reason may be that buchstäblich is less frequently used than other intensifiers such as wirklich, in der Tat, doch, sage und schreibe, tatsächlich.

  • Re your last comment (intensifier or face value): I think that is the source of the semantic drift, that if you don't know the meaning of 'buchstãblich' already and you're trying to figure it out from context, 'face value' is actually a more likely, Occam's-razor choice. – Mitch May 15 '17 at 13:58

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