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Grammarians literally in an uproar over loose definition of “literally”

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Bill Walsh REPORTS that the Grammar Police are in a state of disputation these days:

“We did it guys, we finally killed English.”

With that subject line and a screen shot of Google’s definition of “literally,” a Reddit user concerned about the language (if not about the correct use of commas) sparked a figurative firestorm this month.

The definition in question:

Literally, Adverb

1. In a literal manner or sense; exactly.

2. Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.

To read some of the reaction to the second meaning, you’d think the language gods must be crazy. On Aug. 11, 2013, your head could not literally explode, but on Aug. 12 it could.

I can relate to the feelings behind that Reddit posting, having insisted on the original meaning in my three decades as a copy editor and in my three books on language. But first let me count the ways my would-be fellow stickler, and the ensuing consternation, went wrong.

In fact, the only thing new about that meaning was that somebody had posted something on Reddit. No matter: English sometimes defies logic, as “literally” proves, but it has nothing on the phenomenon known as “going viral.” The Reddit post spawned Twitter mentions and blog entries and newspaper articles. Within days, the Guardian was calling this nondevelopment “literally the biggest semantics story of the week.”

The “news” that the Oxford English Dictionary also notes the reviled usage made the story especially big in Britain. The OED “has revealed that it has included the erroneous use of the word ‘literally’ after the usage became popular,” the Daily Mail reported, as though the dictionary’s contents had previously been kept secret. A headline on that article was just as comical: “Definition added in September 2011 edition, but unnoticed until this week.”

It’s hard to quibble with the “unnoticed” part, given the reaction, but 2011? A blog entryon Oxford’s Web site does mention a 2011 online definition that reflects an update on “literally,” but it clarifies that the disputed meaning was first acknowledged a little earlier. As in 1903. On this side of the Atlantic, Merrian-Webster says it followed suit in 1909.

The timing isn’t the only detail that outraged observers got wrong. They misunderstood the role that dictionaries play. When Oxford or Merriam-Webster lists a word or a definition, it isn’t conferring a blessing of correctness. It’s simply recording the widespread use of that word or definition. If you’re hearing the nonliteral “literally” or “irregardless” or “ain’t” enough to annoy you, that’s a case for including them in dictionaries, not against it.

As linguists and lexicographers and even copy editors pointed out amid the “literally” outrage, a usage that is widespread and established enough to land in dictionaries isn’t the only argument for letting the word evolve. Good writers have used “literally” nonliterally as far back as the 18th century. Charles Dickens used it. So did James Joyce, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Vladimir Nabokov.

The word can mean both its original meaning and the opposite, which might seem odd, but so can verbs such as “sanction” and “dust.” Its secondary meaning makes for hyperbole, but so do many instances of “really” and “truly” and “completely” and “totally” that don’t seem to bother anybody.

And it’s almost always clear whether the word is being used in its original sense or, as that Google definition puts it, “for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”

Still, that Reddit post wasn’t written in a vacuum. The new definition is well established, but so is a strong disdain for it. The usage has become a pop-culture punch line. It’s fodder for comic strips and stand-up comics. Vice President Biden makes headlines with his fondness for it. The usage fills a chapter of my new book, “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk.” However persuasive the historical and linguistic justifications, there’s something uniquely absurd about using the one word that most clearly means “I am not making this up” when you are, in fact, making something up.

 

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