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I just recently came across the phrase "using sth/sth loosely" while watching one of my favorite TV shows. After doing some research, I came across what looks to be a plausible explanation for this phrase on a Q&A forum entitled "What does it mean to use a word/term loosely?" on the website Quora.com.

User Laura Muir responds with:

"Not to be confused with “loosely speaking,” it’s an expression used for humour/sarcasm and irony. If you say “I use the term loosely” you are actually being quite concise with the term, but are implying something else entirely.

For example, let’s say you go out for dinner and it’s horrible. The service is bad. The food is bad. Then the next day, a friend asks you: “What did you do last night?” You can say: “I went out to a restaurant, and I use that term loosely.” The place is indeed a restaurant, but you are sarcastically implying the restaurant is THAT bad it can hardly call itself a restaurant"

Is this answer satisfactory in explaining the gist of the phrase?

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  • The literal meaning is 'not in an exact sense'. You may use a term loosely because you don't have a more accurate expression for what you want to say. It can also be used less literally in the way that Laura Muir describes. Jun 19, 2022 at 15:48

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Yes, the explanation you found is correct, but it is a very specific, sarcastic use of the expression. There are plenty of sincere uses.

'Loose' means, among other things, "permitting freedom of interpretation". For example, you may hear that a movie is "loosely based on a true story", which means that the connection to the true story is not strict - only certain details may remain.

So, to use a term "loosely" simply means that you are deviating from its strict meaning and applying it in a much more interpretive manner.

In your example, saying that a restaurant is not a restaurant because it is a poor one is certainly quite sarcastic. But other words may have different interpretations and be used in strict, or looser ways. For example, 'success' is relative. You might describe someone as being successful if they make money at what they do, but another person might insist that 'successful' implies making a lot of money, and they might say that you are using the term 'successful' loosely.

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