Blog Excerpts

"Literally": A Tempest in a Teapot?

This week there has been a raging language debate about the inclusion of the non-literal meaning of literally in various dictionaries. But is the whole controversy overblown? Here is a roundup of online reactions.

On Language Log, our own Ben Zimmer explains what sparked the hubbub:

It started, as such things often do these days, on Reddit, where a participant in the /r/funny subreddit posted an imgur image showing Google's dictionary entry for "literally" that pops up when you search on the word. The second definition reads, "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true." That was enough for the redditor to declare, "We did it guys, we finally killed English." As the news pinged around the blogosphere, we got such fire-breathing headlines as "Society Crumbles as Google Admits 'Literally' Now Means 'Figuratively'," "Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of 'Literally'," "I Could Literally Die Right Now," and "It’s Official: The Internet Has Broken the English Language."

The outrage was further heightened by the realization that (gasp!) pretty much every major dictionary from the OED on down now recognizes this sense of the word. So now we get vitriol directed toward the OED's lexicographers, who revised the entry for "literally" back in September 2011, coming from such sources as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. [Update: As Fiona McPherson points out on the OxfordWords blog, the usage was actually noted in the "literally" entry when it was first published in 1903. The 2011 revision reorganized the entry and expanded the historical record.]

Ben previously wrote about the disputed usage of literally in his Word Routes column back in 2008:

For centuries, literally has served as an intensifier for expressions both actual and metaphorical, but the metaphorical side of the usage began to come under fire about a century ago from usage mavens like H.W. Fowler, who decried those who "do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." Fowler's gripe, like those who have followed him, is that literally has been extended to mean the exact opposite of its "true" sense. It's become a so-called "Janus word," semantically facing in two contradictory directions. This kind of flip-flop does happen from time to time in the history of English usage... But not every Janus word falls under the same kind of vituperation that literally has confronted in the last hundred years.

Consider other adverbial intensifiers that would seem to describe something as actually existing in a non-metaphorical state: really, truly, absolutely, and positively... Why don't we hold these intensifiers to the same standard as literally?... I think one reason that literally gets singled out for special criticism is that we all learn in school the difference between literal and figurative meaning. So it grates on the ear when a figurative turn of speech is given the "literal" treatment. We're not so attuned to the mismatch of other "real and true" adverbs getting used for purposes of hyperbole, a figure of speech that sets up scenarios that are neither real nor true.

John Rentoul of The Independent calmly appraises the controversy:

I literally don't care that the Oxford English Dictionary now includes the wrong definition of "literally." It is a ticklish paradox that a word can have, as an alternative meaning, the opposite of its original sense. That inversion happens in slang such as "wicked" and nobody gets all poshed up about the OED including that meaning, described as "informal": "excellent; wonderful."

Tom Harris, the Labour MP, asked: "So now the Oxford English Dictionary will redefine any word so long as it's misused often enough? That is literally insane." No, it's not; it is literally what dictionaries do. They make lists of words and say what people use them to mean.

People may be ill advised, in some cases, to use words in new ways, which is what Harris is getting so worked up about. So much so that he imagined himself kneeling "on the ground, fists clenched, staring up at camera as rain pours down," crying, "Noooo!"

I know what he means, but this is one of those dramas based on a terrible misunderstanding, with Harris cast as Tess of the d'Urbervilles. People use "literally" as an intensifier, as a super-strength "really" or "actually." Nobody would notice if you said, "We are really up a creek without a paddle." But put a "literally" in there and the whole internet has to shut down for a day for emergency repairs. [...]

Some changes, especially since the successive inventions of writing, printing and dictionaries, happen slowly. Henry Fowler, for example, was complaining about the misuse of "literally" in 1926: "We have come to such a pass with this emphasiser," he wrote, that "we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate." He compared it with "veritable" and declared: "Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible." Which is nonsense. Literally. But it is worth knowing that the spirit of Fowler is abroad, crying, "Noooo!" And being careful not to use words that make some people cringe.

On the OxfordWords blog, the OED's Fiona McPherson surveys the reasons why non-literal literally gets people so riled up and then concludes:

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that people often have strong opinions about “new” senses of words. Perhaps the question is not so much why do people have a problem with literally but rather why do lexicographers not have a problem? It comes down to that oft-spoke mantra – language changes. Our job is to document that for better or for worse. Except for us, there is no worse. We have to look at language objectively and dispassionately. Of course, part of our job is to give guidance on what might be acceptable when. That is why we label some words as slang and why we give a usage note at the offending sense of literally, making clear that although it is very common, it is considered irregular in standard English.

Which is why we literally cannot see what all the fuss is about.

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