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.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Blog Excerpts.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday August 16th 2013, 7:14 AM
Comment by: RM (India)
Reddit saves lives.
Friday August 16th 2013, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
imagine what happens to all these pious souls, when terms like OMG, LOL,cu etc, the new language of the young, takes over english in the 'literal' sense!
Friday August 16th 2013, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Oz (Bloomington, IN)
Yes, language changes and lexicographers record those changes. But they are sometimes so smug about their lofty perspective that they seem oblivious to the fact that there may be legitimate reasons to deplore some changes. When we add "literally" to the list of intensifiers such as "really," "truly," "absolutely," and "positively" we are not gaining anything, but are losing the ability to make a very useful distinction. The richness of the English language lies not in the ability to say exactly the same thing five different ways, but in the ability to make distinctions, to say as many different things as possible. To regret a linguistic loss is not necessarily to be a narrow-minded dogmatist.
Friday August 16th 2013, 9:56 AM
Comment by: Dan C. (NJ)
I cannot see how any sense of distinction is lost. If this sense of the word really drives you up the wall, then you are acutely aware how the word is intended. When someone uses the word "literally" in its primary sense, you'll also have no doubt what is meant.

I also don't believe at all that the word "literally" is a "Janus word," and is used to mean "figuratively." I cannot imagine anybody, at any time, saying "I figuratively hit the ceiling." That "hit the ceiling" is a metaphor speaks clearly for itself, and "literally" serves only to intensify the image. "Figuratively" would only weaken the image, so that can't be what the speaker intends to convey.

A small factor in this issue that I haven't noticed in the discussions is that "literally" is used as an intensifier only because some cliched expression has lost its power through over-use. One way of looking at "literally" is that the speaker is not only using some tired old metaphor, but also _insists_ on it by throwing in "literally" to sneak past our cliche antibodies. We don't normally challenge each other to avoid hackneyed expressions in everyday speech, so it's not a big deal. And this way of looking at it does not delegitimize the use of "literally" as an intensifier.
Friday August 16th 2013, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Oz (Bloomington, IN)
Dan, What you say about avoiding tired old metaphors points to the way poets can change language for the better. I don't believe that people use "literally" as an intensifier in order to avoid hackneyed expressions.For one thing, they are not doing it self-consciously, and are simply adding one more hackneyed expression to the language.

And yes, I am acutely aware when "literally" is not being used in it primary sense. When someone says, "My blood literally boils," I don't say, "Tut! Tut!" I laugh. What I fear, though, is that the primary sense will lose its status as the primary sense, and possibly disappear into the realm of the archaic.
Friday August 16th 2013, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
For all my simple-minded life I've been ambling about unaware that people WERE using literally in a figurative sense. I must have heard it, but simply assumed the person was grabbing at a word they didn't understand.

I have to admit a sympathy with Oz, in that I think the modern short-hand language, which began with smiley faces and went on to abbreviations like LOL, has reduced the ability of people to espress nuances. I have spent the greater part of my life learng to use this quirky old brute, English, to create emotions in my readers. Sometimes I have had success, sometimes left everyone puzzled. But a semicolon followed by an end-paren just doesn't communicate slyness like a nicely done sentence.

Remember the letters sent back and forth during the Civil War? Or even WWII? I don't think we've just kept the best-written of these. I think we've kept them for familial reasons.

What do such letters sound like today? Are people collecting them? I would love to read some and find out what they sound like. Maybe I'm too pessimistic and they are beautiful.
Saturday August 17th 2013, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm all for slowing down the blurring of meanings of words in our language, but I think we fight a losing cause.

I've come across another word that has opposite meanings as it happens.

Abysmal, meaning both immeasurably bad and immeasurably great. I think this is an 'old story'.
Sunday August 18th 2013, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Mary C A.
Sometimes I fear that the words or pronunciatioins that grate so on my ears, will eventually be moved up to first place in the dictionary. Then what will I have to complain about -- er, or what will I have about which to complain?
Monday August 19th 2013, 1:21 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Did anybody look at Fiona's blog? Per the blog, the earliest usage of literal as an intensifier was 1769. Is that a speedy change of language?

Tuesday August 20th 2013, 8:35 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
The article and comments were literally intriguing. I enjoy a good tempest in a teapot;I'm in Dan C's camp for this one.
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 6:42 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
There is a particular person (whose name I forget) who describes a five-step process in which a word, or perhaps a particular usage of a word, is gradually accepted into polite society. Who is it, and what is that system called? The stage is determined mainly by who uses the word: just illiterate people, illiterate and also careless or casual people, those people plus some fairly well-educated people, then almost everybody, and then everybody, including very well-educated people who are sticklers about proper use of the language.

You who are reading this probably know the person and the system I'm referring to. So, right now, where on that scale is the use of literally as just another intensifier? Has that been determined?

The Happy Quibbler
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 11:02 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Quibbler, I googled a variety of ways to discover the answer. Didn't find it, but happened upon some real intriguing googles!

As a guess, simply that, I think I'd place it midway. Maybe that's due to my middle-of-the-road way of thinking (sometimes). But according to your choices, and how I see the word used, that's where I'd put it.

Wanna know some five letter words? Google really struggled with the terms you laid out! I'd put an 'lol' up here, but I don't want to seem too radical!

Please consider that I'm chuckling!
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 11:04 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I should add that I'm a bit more sensitive about 'literally' since the meaning of a sentence can be so misconstrued.

I read, honestly I did, "He literally killed himself over the comment."


I think the intensifier use has to be specific. Or else we need another word.
Wednesday August 21st 2013, 11:37 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kristine, you're probably thinking of Bryan Garner's Language-Change Index, which appears in Garner's Modern American Usage. You can read about it here. Garner puts non-literal literally at Stage 3 ("commonplace even among many well-educated people but still avoided in careful usage").
Thursday August 22nd 2013, 6:15 AM
Comment by: Dan C. (NJ)
I don't have the answer to Quibbler's question, but it raises an issue that I've been mulling. I think reading and listening and reacting are as much a part of the language as is speaking and writing. (On that basis I've lately defended "peevers" even when they're being pedantic and their reasoning or knowledge of history is incomplete or even wrong: their negative reactions are as much part of the language just as is the wide range of usage, and the reasoning behind their beliefs --right or wrong-- seems irrelevant, the same way it doesn't matter if "pea" entered the language via error.)

So Quibbler's list should include reactions to words and phrases, which may range from avoidance to suppressing a shudder, to lecturing, to writing articles in popular magazines. And words are used differently depending upon the audience. Speakers and writers are aware of the varied reactions, so their use of words depends upon context and the audience. So I think we really need two dimensions in the taxonomy. [emoticon suppressed]

So words and phrases can be fully accepted in language by just about everyone, even when some people avoid them. In my case, say, there might be the singular "they.' Add to that the intensifier sense of "literally."

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.