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Don’t Change the Meaning of Literally

January 19, 2017
It's literally an uphill battle when you disagree with a dictionary. (image via wikimedia)

It’s an uphill battle when you disagree with a dictionary, but not “literally” uphill. (image via wikimedia)

“This is literally the worst day in my life!” my youngest daughter said when I returned home from work.

Literally?  I started to think of my daughter’s other bad days.  There have been deaths in the family, serious injuries, and broken friendships.  I prepared for the worst.  Instead, my daughter explained that there’d been some school drama and a teacher had yelled at her for running in the hallway.

“That’s it?” I said.  “You had me scared at literally.”

“You literally take literally too seriously,” she said.

I didn’t argue with her. I’m glad my daughter knows the meaning of literally, but that knowledge shouldn’t excuse her for misusing it.

When it comes to changes in the meanings of words, literally should be the line in the sand.  I don’t mean we should literally draw a line in the sand because that would be stupid.  I mean, we should remain stubborn against those who would willingly change the meaning of literally to something that doesn’t mean literally.

Even the dictionary has acknowledged the recent change in the misuse of literally.  The first definition of literally in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is fine:

in a way that uses the ordinary or primary meaning of a term or expression

So far, so good.  That’s pretty much what literally has always meant (and should always mean).  Then, in an attempt to explain the new ironic meaning of literally, Merriam-Webster describes  definition #2 as:

 “in effect: virtually.” 

To me, virtually is almost a simile for literally.  So Merriam-Webster then has to clarify with:

used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible

I was told to never use a word to define itself.  This new pseudo-definition of literally is so senseless that the dictionary can’t even define it without using the phrase NOT literally.  If a new meaning of a word requires that the word itself be used in the definition, then the new meaning is disqualified from being taken seriously.

That’s not really a rule, but it should be.

Merriam-Webster even tries to sidestep the issue, when it posts this at the bottom of the literally definition:

Should literally be used for emphasis?

Sense 2 is common and not at all new but has been frequently criticized as an illogical misuse. It is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

That’s a cop-out.

Here’s how that section should have looked.

Should literally be used for emphasis?

No.

See?  That’s responsible use of the power that Merriam-Webster has.  What’s the point of having authority if you’re not willing to take a stand for something so obvious?

Maybe if Merriam-Webster changes the definition of literally on the website (or in its print edition) without using the phrase “not literally,” then I’ll reconsider my metaphorical line in the sand.

Some might call me a language prude, but that’s just name-calling, and name-calling isn’t really an argument.  I write porn jokes and dissect sex scenes in literature, so I’m immune from being called a prude.  I even believe in language evolution.  But I have my limits, and literally is my limit.

*****

What do you think?  Should we let the evolution of literally go unchallenged?  What other word meanings do you think should be preserved?

*****

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From → Etymology

12 Comments
  1. I literally lol’d at this! Wonderful!

    Adverbs seem to be a particularly popular challenge in the writing world.

  2. I literally don’t think you’re an language prude.

  3. “When it comes to changes in the meanings of words, literally should be the line in the sand.” Agreed.

  4. Thank you. Just thank you.

  5. PREACH!
    This soiling of the dictionary might be worse than the choice to include mankini.
    Yesterday during work I listened to all my coworkers misuse the word (the millenials now do it just to drive me crazy) and thought of all the words they could and should be using instead. Seriously! Truly! Actually! Heck, even
    for realz! Literally has such a unique and specific meaning that it serves a unique purpose in language. Don’t take it away! Loathe to be a language teacher.
    I was pleased when the new Netflix series lit-based series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, included their clarification. Keep it real, Lemony Snicket:
    “It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively.’ If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it is happening.

    If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but are saving your energy for other matters.”

  6. I think you literally stand in line not on line.

  7. morgan permalink

    Great post! Nice work! 👍🏻

  8. I have a mug I use at work that says “I’m figuratively dying for a cuppa”. So I think you can see which side I’m on. Great post. Thank you!

  9. I will never stop being uppity about the misuse of literally! And it’s not because of snobbery or a fixation on rules – it’s because we NEED this word. But now we no longer have it, because its definition has been rendered meaningless. Arg!

  10. Anonymous permalink

    As a linguist, all I can say is good luck trying to stop language change once so many speakers have a variant use. If historical linguistics has taught us anything, is that eventually another word will come about to replace “literally.”

    Even so, I totally understand your frustration.

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