Definition of Words: Literalism
Literalism is a rhetorical figure of thought that takes words and statements in their literal sense. Skillful writers take a familiar expression and highlights it in such a way that readers will focus in its literal sense rather than in its usual metaphorical sense.
Just like people of good sense get annoyed at habitual punsters, readers can also get annoyed when they see overuse of this rhetorical figure. Yet, it can be a great tool for writers to inject a bit of humor in their writing.
Shakespeare —a master rhetorician— used it with much success. Here is a scene from The Taming of the Shrew:
Curtis: All ready; and therefore, I pray thee, news?
Grumio: First, know, my horse is tired; my master and mistress fallen out.
Grumio: Out of their saddles into the dirt; and thereby hangs a tale.
Curtis: Let's ha't, good Grumio.
Grumio: (striking him): There.
Curtis: This is to feel a tale, not to hear a tale.
Grumio: And therefore it is called a sensible tale.
When Curtis tells Grumio: “Let’s have it, good Grumio,” he means that Grumio should expand on the news; to which Grumio responds literally by striking him. The exchanges that follow aren’t really examples of literalism—but of puns.
An extreme use of literalism we find in the following the Christian Bible literally. Methuselah, the oldest man mentioned in the Bible, lived to be 969 years of age (Gen. 5: 21-27). The number of years —969— is to be understood literally; in consequence, many theories have been spawned to explain that incredible phenomenon.