4

Many different sites attribute the sentence "If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves" to Thomas Edison. However, it seems to me that the word "literally" is used in this sentence merely for emphasis, as opposed to meaning "in a literal manner or sense; exactly". According to the OED, such informal usage has become common in recent years, but Thomas Edison died in 1931!

Did he say that?

  • 2
    The use of literally to mean figuratively has been in use for centuries, as per the OED (see usage c. colloq.) from as far back as 1769, and notably in 1876 by Mark Twain. – user5582 Sep 29 '13 at 17:48
  • Also, perhaps Thomas Edison meant literally in "in a literal manner or sense; exactly". – user5582 Sep 29 '13 at 17:50
  • The earliest reference to this quotation that I can find is 1964 in a motivational book "Distilled Wisdom" by Alfred Armand Montapert. I've not found any reference that says when and where and to whom Edison said or wrote this. So I'd say unproven but - on balance of probabilities - likely. – RedGrittyBrick Sep 29 '13 at 20:51
  • @Sancho I think the OED page you linked to is what answers what I really wanted to know, namely, if my reasoning ("The quoted sentence uses literally informally. Such informal usage is recent. Thomas Edison died long ago. Therefore, assuming 1931 is not recent in the OED's sense, it follows that Thomas Edison never said the quoted sentence.") was correct (which would imply Thomas Edison didn't say the quoted sentence). – Detached Laconian Oct 4 '13 at 0:09
  • @Sancho Can you elaborate on your second comment? ("Also, perhaps Thomas Edison meant literally in "in a literal manner or sense; exactly".") I don't really see how the word "astound" could have any meaning aside from its literal meaning in Edison's quote. – Detached Laconian Oct 4 '13 at 0:12
5

Attribution

(Biech 2009, at p. 152) attributes this quote to Thomas Jefferson. This is the only source I found attributing the quote to somebody other than Edison, so I assume it is in error.

The National Parks Service attributes the quote to Thomas Edison on the page for the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. While this is still not a contemporaneous attribution with details of time, addressee, etc., I treat the Thomas Edison National Historical Park as more reliable than the citations in the question.

Using literally to mean virtually

The use of literally in a colloquial sense to mean virtually has been occuring for centuries, as per the OED (see usage c. colloq.) from as far back as 1769, and notably in 1876 by Mark Twain. Thus, if Thomas Edison used the word "literally" in this sense, that would not be inconsistent with the history of the word.

References

Biech, Elaine. Ten Steps to Successful Training. ASTD, 2009.

National Parks Service. Thomas Edison National Historical Park. url:http://www.nps.gov/edis/forteachers/index.htm

  • Is this any more than a repeat of the claim? – Oddthinking Sep 29 '13 at 22:23
  • 1
    It's a citation from a more reliable source. – user5582 Sep 29 '13 at 22:30
  • Your answer, as-is, provides stronger evidence to support the claim that Thomas Edison said the sentence in the title of my question. However, as I said in the comments below my question, I think what really satisfied me was the link to a OED page you provided. If you add that to your answer, I'd be happy to accept it. (Note that the link shows my reasoning was incorrect.) – Detached Laconian Oct 4 '13 at 0:17
  • @TuringMachine Sure thing. – user5582 Oct 4 '13 at 0:29

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .