Meanings: “Actually”

August 8, 2012

The Atlantic’s Jen Doll nominates “actually” as the worst word on the planet. I assume she means in English.  There’s no Olympics for this event. It’s the essential passive aggressive quality of the word that makes it rise to the top (or the bottom?) for her.  She contrasts it with “literally,” also a contender for the title:

While literally and actually can be used interchangeably, actually has a bad attitude. Literally can be mocked and laughed at, because literally almost no one uses it correctly. Actually is more sneaky, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Actually is the word that you use when you’re actually saying, “You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot.” (Actually, my name is Jen, not Jane.) The fact that it often comes out so passive aggressively makes it worse than literally, too.

According to, “actually” comes into use in the early 15c., meaning “in fact, in reality” (as opposed to in possibility), from actual + -ly.

“Actual,” from which it is derived, is a little older, meaning”pertaining to an action.”

actual (adj.) Look up actual at
early 14c., “pertaining to an action,” from O.Fr. actuel “now existing, up to date” (13c.), from L.L. actualis “active, pertaining to action,” adjectival form of L. actus (see act (n.)). The broader sense of “real, existing” (as opposed to potential, ideal, etc.) is from late 14c.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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