Literal vs. Figurative Meanings

When discussing American English idioms, or expressions, or sayings, it is very important to understand the difference between the “literal” and “figurative” meanings of a word or phrase.

“Literal” has the same root as “literary,” which means “related to a book.” A “literal” meaning is a meaning that is “by the book,” that is, according to the dictionary meaning. This may be thought of as the “direct” or “straight” meaning.

“Figurative” has the same root as “figure,” which is another word for a diagram, display; an image or illustration. A “figurative” meaning is a meaning that is not literal; the meaning used is not the meaning of the word or phrase itself, but a different meaning implied by it. This meaning is dependent on culture and history. This is the “indirect” meaning.

For example, one expression for a bad excuse is “the dog ate my homework.” The reference is not usually to a child literally, that is, in reality, claiming that his homework was eaten by his family dog. This excuse is considered representative of all bad excuses, because it is very unlikely a dog actually ate your homework! Far more likely is that you (or the child, rather) was lazy and unmotivated and simply did not work hard enough to finish the homework on time.

“The dog ate my homework” therefore has a figurative meaning of “making a ridiculous, bad excuse for failure.”

Words used in their “figurative” meanings like this are often called metaphors, because they point elsewhere for their true meaning; expressions, because they express an idea without having to be “literal” and therefore slower; and sayings, because they are “things people say” to express ideas. However, a “saying” is usually a complete sentence; metaphors and expressions can be smaller than a sentence.

The “figurative” meaning is also the idiomatic meaning. Therefore, an idiom expresses the figurative meaning of a word or phrase.

The Bottom Line

In British and American business, the last, or bottom, part of a balance sheet contains the net profit or loss of that business for one year. Therefore, the literal “bottom line” is the result of business activity, and whether that activity resulted in a profit, or a loss.

Similarly, the figurative meaning of “the bottom line” is what Americans would call “the point”: the result of an action, of a set of actions, or of taking no action at all. “The bottom line” is whether or not the behavior of a person, or a business, results in something good, or bad.

The first responsibility of a business is to make enough money to survive. Whatever other benefits a business may provide to society, such as jobs to employees and donations to hospitals and schools, a business that is bankrupt, and that must be shut down, cannot help anyone. A bankrupt business usually has debts it cannot pay, resulting in suffering for other businesses, former employees, and the community itself.

Therefore, as far as business is concerned, “the bottom line” is the bottom line. The point, is profit, or loss. Everything else comes after this.

I consider “the bottom line is the bottom line” to be one of my favorite expressions, combining both the figurative and the literal meaning of one phrase in a single saying. It is helpful to understand that “the bottom line” has both a figurative and a literal meaning, and what those meanings are.

Focus

In photography, to “focus” a lens is to use the lens to make the center of an image sharper as viewed through the camera. However, making the center sharper comes at the expense, or at the cost, of making what is not in the center, blurrier.

Thus, to focus on something is to prioritize one thing over another. To focus is to concentrate attention on either a single thing, or a small set of things, as opposed to being unfocused, which is, to pay attention to many things, but devoting less attention to each one.

When Americans say, “focus on the bottom line,” they are suggesting you should concentrate your attention on profit and loss. They are not saying that profit and loss alone are the only things that matter; however, they are telling you to make profit and loss the priority.
More broadly, “focus on the bottom line” means to place focus, or concentration, on that which is important, and away from that which is not important.

Of course, the trick is to know what is important, and what is unimportant. In photography and business alike, good focus requires skill and technique.