A minor media flurry occurred in 2013 when it was announced that the Oxford English Dictionary had re-defined the word “literally” so that it could now mean “metaphorically,” i.e. “not literally.” The senior dictionary editor, Fiona MacPherson, explained that this constituted merely “another shade of meaning” or even “a subtle nuance,” and added that the first recorded example of such a use came from 1769. All that means, to people like myself, Denis Donoghue, and, I trust, the readers of this review, is that the word has been used wrongly since 1769. As Donoghue argues in his new book, unless a metaphor has a non-metaphorical referent, it cannot function. When we learn about poetic imagery at school, we are commonly taught that a simile is a straightforward comparison of two things using “like” or “as,” in which the real thing...


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Denis Donoghue
Harvard University Press, 240 pages, $24.95

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