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A Misuse of the Word LITERAL

One of my pet peeves is the way “literal” is used in discussing biblical interpretation.  The problem is not just that the word has changed meaning; rather, it is now scattered all over the map. “Literal” comes to mean anything from “seriously” to “severely out of context” much more often than it means “literal as opposed to figurative.” Even “literal as opposed to figurative” leaves something to be desired since without a knowledge of just which way something is to be taken, either literally or figuratively, one often can’t tell what is meant.

For example, if I say I don’t take Genesis 1 literally, just what do I mean? For me, Genesis is not narrative history. Having said that, there are many things it could be, and it happens that I take Genesis 1:1-2:4a to be liturgy. There are figurative elements in liturgy, but it is a more specific label.

In any case, in studying Philippians, I came across this note in the Orthodox Study Bible regarding the Greek word leitourgia in 2:17: “Service is literally ‘liturgy.’ …” I hate to beat up on the Orthodox Study Bible so much, especially considering that at the same time as I use it, I’m becoming more and more delighted with the eastern church fathers.

But “service” is not literally “liturgy” nor is leitougia literally “liturgy.” “Liturgy” is merely one gloss one might use, expressing a certain portion of the semantic range of the Greek word. One might say the the word translated “service” is the one from which we derive the English word “liturgy,” though that doesn’t really mean much regarding the meaning of this passage.

So again I will maintain that “literal” is one of the most misused words in biblical interpretation. I’ve suggested before that if I could take one phrase away from conservatives it would be “the Bible clearly teaches.” If I could take one phrase away from liberals it would be “we don’t take that literally.” Neither one advances the discussion.


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  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    Henry, you’re so good at emphasizing good descriptive word study for Greek and Hebrew, so why in the world do you fall in to such prescriptive nonsense when you move to English? Misuse…

    Literal as opposed to figurative is only one of a number of senses listed by the OED and its not even the primary one. While I would agree that OSB’s etymologizing is absolutely outrageous, their use of the word “literal” is perfectly acceptable.

    1. I’d appreciate your pointing me to the definition that makes sense of their statement.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    “Literal” comes to mean anything from “seriously” to “severely out of context” much more often than it means “literal as opposed to figurative.”

    Mike, I believe you may be correct that the “OSB’s … use of the word ‘literal’ is perfectly acceptable.” Nonetheless, Henry, you are on to something here. Too often critical language resists criticism. In other words, for the OSB to use “literal” in such a would-be pre-determined way is, as you show, pretty sloppy stuff. It’s an overdetermined word.

    If I had time, I’d try to find how Vladimir Nabokov “Russians” his three uses of the English word “literally” in Lolita. They are in the original English: “one is literally ‘doubled up’ with laughter”; and “and literally crawl on my knees to your chair”; and “Anyway, I was literally grasping for breath.” What figures! Ha! Nabokov’s translation back into his native language of Russian is fascinating, given what he produced by it. Willis Barnstone calls him both a student and a product of translation, and, ultimately, an “anti-translator.” “In What Colors Did Nabokov See the World?” asks Anna Wierzbicka in her chapter “Bilingualism and Cognition: the Perspective from Semantics,” in Language and Bilingual Cognition edited by Vivian Cook and Benedetta Bassetti. She follows how the novelist chooses to use certain English colors for literal or/ and figural effects; but then what he chooses in Russian. What would it mean if Nabokov takes his literal “literally” in Lolita (the three instances) but does something different in his Russian version? What if how he decided to render his English into his Russian differed from how Mike, or you, or I, or the unnamed OSB author decided he should? Nobody would fault him? How could we? But your important point here is that the OSB is a critical tool, and I say (in agreement) it’s not a novel. And yet, the writer of the OSB is almost using “literally” novelistically, if you will.

    1. Kurk – I’m not yet agreeing with you and Mike that the OSB is using the word “literal” in a comprehensible manner. I see them as saying that “liturgy” is in some sense a more literal translation of leitourgia than is “service.” I’m searching for a definition of literal that makes that true, and if I find such, is a definition that is likely to be comprehended by readers.

      I do not suspect them of using “literal” vs. “figurative.” That’s just a rant. But what is their definition? I don’t possess a copy of the OED, but looking through my less potent dictionaries I haven’t yet found one that works.

      So I’m interested in your statement that the writer is using “literally” novelistically is interesting. I’m almost seeing it, but it hasn’t become clear to me. My search stuck with less novelistic (I’m beginning to like that word!) approaches. It seems to me that the writer intended to point out that the “liturgy” was etymologically more closely related, and I’m having trouble stretching any definition to fit that.

      On the other hand, I admit to occasional bouts of prescriptivism. I was just annoyed by the use of “anniversary” to refer to the day one month following the quake in Japan. Linguistically I know that usage is quite common and accepted, yet it still grates on my ears and I hate it.

      I wonder if I’d be as annoying about Greek if I was a native speaker? 🙂

      1. J. K. Gayle says:

        Henry – Well, yes, I understand your protests. The OSB writer would have made reading his/ her commentary so much more palatable had he / she said “Service is ETYMOLOGICALLY ‘liturgy.’ …” (Either way, Mike rightly calls this “outrageous”).

        So we note how this works. The OED compilers say:

        “Forms: Also 15–16 leitourgie, leiturgie, leiturgy, liturgie.
        Etymology: < post-classical Latin liturgia< ancient Greek λειτουργία public service, service of the gods, public worship,…”

        All reading is translation, I say. And you and I, once upon a time, were hoping that others would talk more about various kinds of notions of translation, including "transliteration," or if you'll allow me, somewhat literally, "trans-literal-ization." What I'm interested in is how the OSB and the OED writers pretend or rhetorically give the appearances of objectivity by not putting a "by line" on their work. Who are these people? But their absence is to effect in the readers' minds the illusion that they themselves don't count or, at least, they are not interpreting, because the letters and the words are so transparent, so obvious, so literal, so objective. (Once upon a time, I wrote another post called, “Letterally, the figure A” just to play on this notion. Wish it’d been part of my novel, by J. K. Gayle, Ha!)

        The OED compilers, under “literally,” offer this other example from Nabokov, which I think is telling:

        “And with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of the cell.”

        What they fail to note is that Vladimir wrote the sentence in Russian (for his novel, Приглашение на казнь, Priglasheniye na kazn’), which his son, Dmitri, rendered into English as Invitation to a Beheading. Here, very novelistically, and translationally, however one reads that, we find “literally” used “figurally.”

        1. Actually (or literally?) I begin to get this. Yes, in one sense, “liturgy” is more literal than “service” as a translation of leitourgia. Or perhaps more “letteral.” I’m fairly sure this wasn’t the OSB compilers’ point, however, but not absolutely sure. They may have meant just that.

          I tend to think there isn’t a hard line between translation and non-translation. By “non-translation” I refer her to paraphrases, adaptations, and other uses of literature that are often so categorized, as in “that’s not a translation, it’s a paraphrase.”

          But one must paraphrase in some sense in order to translate, as one must also interpret, so the line is not nearly so firm.

          I like the Nabokov example of literally scouring with eyes. But I would use that example to go even further in terms of technical talk, and to point out that the phrases “literal translation” and “literal interpretation” say next to nothing without a very substantial context. When someone says, “I interpret the Bible literally” I cannot know what they will actually do. Considerable qualification is required.

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