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Someone said to me, "We basically literally did." What were they trying to express to me?

Also, can basically and literally be used in the same sentence?

My points to my language partner:

  • Literally is an exaggeration and basically is a simplification
  • Exaggerations do not go with simplifications as a general rule of language
  • Basically and literally cannot coexist at their core definitions

My language partners' point:

  • Colloquially they are be used together
  • It's slang use
  • 7
    Was that someone a native speaker? – Maulik V Nov 22 at 4:54
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    I'm not sure this is answerable without the preceding context. – Darren Ringer Nov 23 at 15:19
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    Why do you think "literally" is an exaggeration? How is "basically" a simplification? What rule of language says you cannot use simplification and exaggeration together? – David K Nov 24 at 3:12
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    It's "..basically, literally.."; the comma is important. It's not really slang, but it basically, literally is. Basically is being used like a qualifier. They don't want to commit to a simple "Yes", "We did", or "We literally did" because they didn't quite literally do it. They pretty much did. They almost did. They almost, literally did. They basically, literally did. You see, Literally is too... literal or exact, it might seem hyperbolic or exaggerated. So people will add basically to dial it back a bit when they want to make something seem a little more plausible or realistic. – voices Nov 24 at 4:40
  • If they are native speakers, they are trying to express that they failed high school English. – Issel Nov 24 at 14:51
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The pairing of "basically literally" is very colloquial/informal and skews young. I hear it moderately frequently, mostly when people are recounting stories about personal interactions.

It means "I am emphatic that my description conveys an accurate feeling of a moment/interaction, but it isn't literally true--I am exaggerating or simplifying for story effect."

I would say a slightly more formal translation of "basically literally" would be "pretty much actually," or even just "pretty much."

Edited to add: This is an Am.E. perspective. I agree with commenters who say that "essentially" is also a good translation.

  • 3
    Where have you heard this? Here (UK) the phrase would sound nonsensical, even for young people. – otah007 Nov 22 at 16:46
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    You'll hear it in the US, particularly among young social media users – eps Nov 22 at 17:29
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    @otah007 I have heard this often in the US; although it mostly happens with younger cohorts. (As an uneducated guess I'd say it's most predominant in the generations after the Millennials) – Stegosaurus Nov 22 at 17:30
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    Another possible synonym would be 'essentially'. As in: someone tells you a situation, you respond with the list of things you would do in that situation, and they respond with "That's essentially what I did" or "That's basically literally what I did" – eps Nov 22 at 17:45
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    What does "skews young" mean? – dan Nov 23 at 2:30
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I'd translate this as "this is actually exactly what we did". "Basically" is tantamount with "roughly" while "literally" is pretty much "exactly, to a T". The apparent contradiction in meaning resolves to "you might have expected us to do something similar, but we actually did exactly that, not merely something similar".

1

I agree with Em. that recently, "literally" has been used primarily for emphasis, especially by younger people. However, in cases where it is used for emphasis, I find you can drop it without changing the meaning of the sentence at all. In response to "Can you go pick up some bread?", "I literally just got back from the store" means the same as "I just got back from the store" (italics get the verbal emphasis). My impression is that "literally" has been used as an emphasis filler so frequently that it has essentially lost meaning for some speakers, and I have a hunch that plays a role in the statement in question.

That said, I would read that statement to be equivalent to "We basically did", with "basically" carrying more weight than "literally" due to a much less frequent usage.

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    This new usage of ‘literally’ to mean ‘not literally’ drives me up the wall! The word has no real synonyms, so there's now no simple way to convey its original meaning unambiguously. Young folks are always looking for more extreme intensifiers (I know; I did), but repurposing that particular word is not only wrong but also spoils it for everyone else… [old fogey mode=off] – gidds Nov 23 at 14:15
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I agree with others that this is generally said by younger people for emphasis, exaggeration and creating excitement.

"Basically" means they are presenting the information in it's simplest form, cutting out detail, and getting to the bottom line. A person will often begin a summary of some happening or event with, "Basically, ...". It can be used for exaggeration, or humour, as it allows the speaker to omit certain details, which can distort the context.

In saying "literally" the person means to express, "I'm not exaggerating, though it may sound like it!" (Though this can of course be said in situations where the person is actually exaggerating.) An example of this would be someone saying something like:

I literally slipped over in the middle of the bar in front of everyone!

So "basically literally" could be understood to mean something like:

In the most basic sense, yes, this actually did happen!

0

It's difficult to give a proper answer without further context. We need to know what exactly it is that they are saying they did.

It's possible, as in other answers, that literally is just being used as an intensifier, as you have assumed. However, it is also possible it is being used in its original meaning.

My default interpretation would be that "basically literally" is synonymous with "almost exactly." As such, the sentence would be equivalent to "That's almost exactly what we did!"

The point would be to say that, whatever was just described is very close to what they previously did.

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