The Meaning of 'Figuratively Speaking' Explained in Easy Terms

Figuratively Speaking: What Does It Mean
An attempt to literally explain what figuratively means.
Penlighten Staff
Last Updated: May 31, 2018
Every self-proclaimed word nerd has a list of pet peeves. Most of them will swear by the frustration they feel when the term figuratively is used incorrectly, or worse still, replaced by literally. And when the misuse is a problem big enough to feature on a popular sitcom (How I met Your Mother), you know it's time to contribute your two-bit to the discussion.
'Figuratively Speaking' - Am I Saying it Right?
In the simplest of terms, when one uses the phrase figuratively speaking in conversation or in written text, they are referring to a scenario that is so abstract and unrealistic that there is no possibility of it actually occurring. Like the use of the word literally, specifying that you are speaking figuratively is actually unnecessary. The example given below points out the futility of using the phrase figuratively speaking in a dialog between characters from the novel.
What would the world say? Why, it would say that she didn't think our money was clean enough to mix with old man Gooch's. She'd throw it in our faces and the whole town would snicker."

"Figuratively speaking, young man, figuratively speaking," said one of the uncles, a stockholder and director.

"What do you mean by that?"

"That she--ahem! That she couldn't actually throw it."

"I'm not so literal as you, Uncle George."

"Then why use the word throw?"

"Of course, Uncle George, I don't mean to say she'd have it reduced to gold coin and stand off and take shots at us. You understand that, don't you?"

"Leslie," put in his father, "you have a most distressing way of--er--putting it. Your Uncle George is not so dense as all that."

The Hollow of Her Hand by George Barr McCutcheon
Having said that, it is important that you know that it is in no way wrong to use the phrase. It is merely unnecessary. The beauty of being figurative while conversing or writing is that it creates a subtle, special meaning. The nuances of figurative language create associations and suggestions in the listener's mind that have not been stated implicitly.

The two figures of speech that you are most likely to use when talking figuratively are similes and metaphors, wherein two things, which are dissimilar, are compared. These are descriptive and create a perspective. Similarly other commonly used figures of speech are onomatopoeia, hyperbole, personification, oxymoron, irony, etc. Figurative language arouses our interest, keeps us curious, and evokes our emotional side, by appealing to us.
So, What's the Confusion?
terally you are referring to something that means exactly what the words refer to. There is absolutely no form of exaggeration. Figuratively, on the other hand, is used to suggest something that is different from its actual meaning. The confusion arises because on occasion, literally can be used as a hyperbole, and in such a context it tends to mean the same as figuratively. 

This usage of the word literally is informal and considered incorrect by several people. If we trace the usage of the word in this form though, we learn that literally was used figuratively for the first time in 1769. In fact Mark Twain used it to convey a figurative meaning in his 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, when he wrote "Tom was literally rolling in wealth".

We also often come across instances wherein literally and figuratively are used together in order to create a picture that would, without either one of them, seem incomplete. The New York Times used the two words together effectively in their review of the play, The Piano Lesson when it wrote, "'The Piano Lesson' tells a more haunting story, both literally and figuratively".

The wrong usage of a word never stems from not understanding the word but from the prevalence of bad grammar. Sometimes, it is so difficult to wade your way through the muck of poor grammar, that you tend to forget the correct usage of a word. After you hear a gazillion people misuse the same word, you question your own understanding of the word. The same is the case with literally. The incorrect usage of the word has gained so much popularity that the correct usage is floundering.
Where They Were Absolutely Right
Figuratively Speaking
  • The most important thing in art is the frame. For painting: literally; for other arts, figuratively--because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. - Frank Zappa

  • John went to one window, unfolded his paper, and wrapt himself in it, figuratively speaking. - Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
  • Figuratively speaking, Tiger Woods has got into plenty of hot water in the last few years, thanks to the controversies dogging him.
  • When she left the house without saying a word to me, she broke my heart into a million little pieces.
  • When I walked out of my house today, I felt like the world was smiling down on me.
  • Figuratively speaking, we're in the same boat.

  • I could eat a bus, figuratively speaking of course.
Literally Speaking
  • The scorching heat and the lack of even a single drop of water made Sue so weak that she literally fainted.
  • I found it extremely hard to believe, when I read in the papers, that the seemingly gentle polar bears could literally eat their own cubs.
  • On the dirt track, you were left so far behind me that I can say you were literally eating my dust.
  • My basement got flooded and the plumber was literally knee-deep in water.
Where They Went Completely Wrong
Where people often go wrong where the use of literally and figuratively is concerned is when they use the former in a sentence that is already figurative and does not need an additional hyperbole in the form of the word, literally. Take for instance the three examples given below.
What They Said
I stay literally in the heart of the town.
urban-landscape
What I Imagined
What They Said
Meg was literally in the hot seat when her mother asked her about the broken window.
scolding-mother
What I Imagined
What They Said
He was literally on fire while running the race.
literally
What I Imagined
There is a distinct possibility that in the near future, the word literally will become synonymous with the word figuratively. The question is, till then, is it okay for us to use literally instead of figuratively? Will we keep our calm when someone says 'I literally lost my head when the waiter was rude to me'? Maybe we will. It is (God save us) an accepted use according to major dictionaries. But word nerds that we are, we may snicker or cringe or maybe literally lose our shirt. We promise though that we'll try to be bigger people and drown our sorrows in our literal drinks.