‘Literally’ has a ‘new’, secondary meaning.
This from Merriam-Webster:
literally (adverb) 1 in a literal sense or manner; actually. 2 in effect; virtually.
The interweb has exploded – again – with posts and comments from people outraged that the dictionary has been updated – again.
There’s even an online petition which asks Google to ‘please do your small part to keep the world from turning upside down, and stand for a definition of “literally” that has not been hijacked by language pirates’.
Sigh. And yawn. Again.
How many times have you heard someone use ‘literally’ to mean ‘figuratively’? Seen it written somewhere?
Perhaps someone said something like, “Oh my god, I literally died laughing.” A sentence that, given the person’s ability to utter it, didn’t make a whole lot of ‘literal’ sense. (Although, if you remove the word ‘literally’, it still doesn’t make a whole lot of ‘literal’ sense. But I digress.)
Or perhaps they said, “I literally peed my pants from laughing so hard.” An occurrence that’s plausible, but that you’re pretty sure didn’t actually happen.
Or perhaps you’ve read Little Women. Or Nicholas Nickleby. Yes, there are 19th century literary examples of ‘literally’ being used in the second sense listed above.
I’ve heard it. I’ve seen it. A lot. A lot a lot a lot a lot.
And you know what? I don’t like it. I’m happy to admit it. In fact, I cringe a little inside when I hear it. I don’t like ‘literally’ being used as an emphasis marker. At all.
But like schmike. Who cares if I like it or not? It happens. It’s out there. People use it this way. People have been using it this way for a long time. We understand what people mean when they use ‘literally’.
The dictionary has, once again, simply caught up. It happened last year with misogyny. And it’s happened again.
Our language has a long history of adding to the meaning of words, changing the meaning of words, and finding other words to replace the original meaning of words when that meaning no longer stands.
Worried you won’t know which definition applies when? Don’t be. Context will provide the answer. So many words in our language have multiple meanings. If context really doesn’t help, choose another word. Like seriously. Or actually. Or totally seriously actually truly honestly cross my heart and hope to die.
Literally has more than one meaning. Deal with it. Or I will literally explode in frustration.
What do you think of the ‘new’ meaning of literally? Love it? Loathe it? Couldn’t care less about it?
More fun reading on the topic
The Telegraph: No we haven’t ‘literally killed’ the English language. Or metaphorically killed it. Stand down, semantics nerds
Buzzfeed: The Wrong Definition of “Literally” is Literally Going in the Dictionary
Slate: A Reminder About “Literally”
The Shake: They’ve literally broken the word literally. LITERALLY.