WNW: The Outrage over "Literally"

Today's Word Nerd Wednesday tackles a topic that has lit up the Internet in the last week or so: the so-called "news" that the word literally has a new definition, meaning figuratively, which is technically the opposite of what the term means.

Note that I put "news" in scare quotes. That's because it's not really news. Dictionaries have been adding that second definition for years. Literally. (Hah!) People noticed this time, because it was a new change to Google's dictionary.

I got my copy of the OED about ten years ago, and the alternate definition of literally is there. Granted, that definition is the last of five, meaning that it's the least common and least accepted one. Plus, it has a note that it's "improper" to use literally in a figurative sense.

HOWEVER . . . (You knew that was coming, right?) as with every word in the OED, this definition includes quotations from the earliest usages of literally with each definition. And guess what: the quotations for using literally meaning  figuratively go way back to Dryden (hardly a hack) in 1687. You'll find quotations from the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s, as well.

In other words, people have been using literally as figuratively for a very long time.

So now what? Should we all adopt that definition because it's in just about every dictionary? Not so fast.

First let's talk about what dictionaries actually do. Dictionaries don't record what is correct. Dictionaries report what is said and written. They're the non-judgmental messenger.

In other words, a word or a definition showing up in a dictionary doesn't give that word/definition any kind of stamp of approval. It may still be considered incorrect according to Standard English.

Plenty of words and definitions that aren't Standard English (or at least, not yet) appear in dictionaries, including ain't, which isn't in the ballpark of Standard English.

The bottom line is that language changes over time; that's a simple fact. Try reading Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales in their original text, and you'll see just how much English has changed over the centuries. (Hint: the text doesn't even look like English.)

For that matter, if we're stuck on what a word "really" means, let's look at the OED's first two definitions of literally: 1) By the letters 2) In literature.

So if we're going by the definition from the late 1500s, my English degree made me literally smart, where literally refers to literature. No one's crying foul that the meaning of the word has drastically changed since then. And that's fine.

For that matter, in the OED's entry for literally, today's most common definition ("in a literal sense") isn't listed until number four.

If this sort of thing interests you, here are two other posts that relate, where I've ranted about how English evolves and also how we need to know Standard English to be taken seriously in most educated situations.

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, so I can spend the time I saved eating brownies, because seriously, they won't eat themselves. 


Sue said…
I don't like "literally" used as "figuratively."

But then, I am not fond of language change that can be traced to erroneous usage.


I know. I'm a stickler.

Pat Coffey said…
Thank you, thank you, thank you for caring. Keep the world aware of the ebb and flow of the English Language is a big job. I am still in rehab recovering from nouns being used as one word sentences.
Jillybean said…
Sounds like a job for "Captain Literally"

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