I read this in Word by Word by Kory Stamper:

Nowhere else is our institutional introversion borne out than at the Merriam- Webster holiday parties. The parties are usually held in the afternoon, in the basement of the building, which in some years is literally spruced up for the occasion.

I want to ask why the writer is emphasising "spruced up" with "literally". I mean what would "spruced up" metaphorically imply.

  • 1
    I think you need to include more context. While "literally" is often used to add emphasis to a sentence, because the subjects are the Merriam-Webster employees, I suspect actual spruce trees, branches, or leaves were used as part of the decoration. When someone who writes dictionaries says "literally", they probably mean it.
    – Andrew
    Jul 7 '19 at 17:19

In American English, 'holiday parties' tend to take place in December, around the times of Christmas and Hannukah. When the basement is 'literally spruced up' then it is literally, (actually really) decorated with a Norway Spruce Christmas tree, or branches, foliage etc, from one or more. As one would expect of a book about lexicography, the author is careful about the meanings of words. The use of 'literally' to mean 'figuratively' is informal, and is the exact opposite of its formal meaning.


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  • I read more from the source and the author says nothing about having any kind of spruce as decoration. I suppose we can infer they have a nice tree, but we don't know for sure that's what she means. One can hope.
    – Andrew
    Jul 7 '19 at 18:09
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    I think the author is playing games with us. She knows that we will understand "literally" to mean "figuratively" and is pointedly using "literally" literally.
    – James K
    Jul 7 '19 at 20:43
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    Maybe it's my age, but I generally understand literally to mean literally. Jul 7 '19 at 21:33
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    Andrew - if a lexicographer says that somewhere was literally spruced up, you can bet your life there was spruce somewhere. Jul 7 '19 at 21:34
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    @kelvin The dictionary isn't going to help you here. It's a play on words, meaning both "made clean and neat", but also possibly implying "decorated with a spruce tree".
    – Andrew
    Jul 9 '19 at 0:12

To simply say "the building was spruced up" would mean "to make it look cleaner, neater, or more attractive." As mentioned by user070221. But in this case, i strongly suspect that "literally spruced up" means "decorated with actual spruce trees or branches" as the answer by Michael Harvey suggests. "literally" is used because the idiomatic, general meaning is so much more common, and the writer is drawing attention to how the literal meaning is in contrast with the more usual idiomatic (metaphorical) meaning.

But since the source does not elaborate on the presence of actual spruce foliage, this is a conclusion, not something that can be asserted as established fact. Still it seems the most reasonable meaning of the quoted text.

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