As the story goes, an Oxford philosopher is asked by his wife to watch the soup while she’s out of the room. She returns to find him staring fixedly at the broth, as it bubbles all over the hob. The joke is on the prof, at once other-worldly and too literal-minded to follow a simple instruction (as Bernard Williams remarked, what would he have done if his wife had asked him to keep an eye on the soup?). But what does it say about the word literally, if a simple task like soup-watching can be cocked up by taking it too literally?

Literal-mindedness in analytical philosophers can sometimes amount to a vocation. In my current Philo-101 class I tell my Belgian students about conversational implicatures, and how they differ from entailments. I recount the tale of Nobby, who tells his mum that he stayed at Olga’s till 10 p.m., when in fact he stayed all night; for Nobby has read his Paul Grice, and knows that while ‘I stayed at Olga’s till ten’ conversationally implies that he left at ten, it doesn’t entail it. For if he stayed all night, then he stayed at least till ten, but it can’t follow from that that Nobby left Olga’s at ten, since that makes the claim that he stayed all night false.

So far so Gricean. I tell students that implicature is a form of philosophical purgatory to be gone through before the harps can twang. But someone – Nobby’s mum, for example – might say: ‘Cut the crap.’ Some of my francophone students do say this ('coupez la merde'), in so many words, and side with his mum against Nobby, resting their case on their greatly greater knowledge than mine of literal meanings in French. If someone’s literally keeping his eye on the soup, is he really dunking his eyeball in the bouillabaisse? Or can you literally keep your eye on something just by watching it? Are Magritte’s pipe pictures banal, because obviously (another nag from the same stable) a painting isn’t literally a pipe – for instance, you can’t stuff it?

People are upset that new lexicons, shaped by web usage, have allowed that fine old English word ‘literally’ to be debased. These complaints have a venerable lineage. They worry that ‘literally’ no longer means only ‘literally’ but signals hyperbole, as in: ‘The restroom attendant was like, literally, the size of a whale.’ We infer the guy was fat, or big. Then the L-word lies to hand, for the smartass reply: ‘Really, literally? I mean, how did he get into the restroom?’ But what does ‘literally’ literally mean? In the just-quoted sentence, you might think the ‘like’ in fact says it were as if he were that big, in which case it’s presumably figurative. Anyway, some whales aren’t that big – baby ones, say. ‘Ah, but he didn’t say a baby whale. He meant one that was colossal.’ One that was colossal in relation to its own kind? If so, maybe that’s what he literally meant about the restroom guy.

It turns out to be pretty awkward to specify how the literal and its implied antonym – the metaphorical, usually, or figurative – line up against each other. In 'On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense', Nietzsche glosses the idea of truth via metaphors: as a coin whose face has been worn away through use, or as ‘a mobile army of metaphors’. People talk of literal translations. But it’s not obvious what this is. Is it word for word? Luther reportedly said at the Diet of Worms: ‘Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.’ Would a literal rendering be ‘Here stand I, I can not otherwise’? But this isn’t even English: it’s Googlish. And ‘I can not’ doesn’t mean what ‘I cannot’ means, which is what he’s usually taken to have meant.

As Humpty says to Alice in wonderland, deciding on meanings means deciding who’s boss. Surely, for instance, the meaning’s plain when the government sends out signboard vans telling foreigners to ‘go home’ – or, speaking metaphorically, to fuck off (‘You literally want me to go away and copulate at the same time?’). We all know what is meant – for instance, by ‘home’. Except for those of us who, literally, don’t speak English. And those who, because they left poverty, or forced marriage, or other kinds of servitude, or came to join loved ones, had no home there, but came to find one here. Literally.