"Literally" Now Means "Figuratively," Heads Literally Explode

Figuratively, that is. The word "literally" has long been a thorn in the side of many a Grammar Nazi.

Now Merriam-Webster, Cambridge and MacMillan have added to their definitions of the word "literally" an additional definition describing the word's figurative use. The new definition is listed as an informal usage. This has not been enough to quell the rage some self-styled grammarians have let loose upon the Internet in the wake of the announcement.

Salon has taken the grumpy stance of asking how it came to this. Meanwhile the Oxford English Dictionary has included a version of this definition among its definitions for "literally" for a length of time I literally do not know. Here's the relevant part of their online entry.

How it came to be that "literally" could mean "figuratively" is not a terribly long or difficult story to tell. It's not even a sordid tale, as much as I would like it to be. But it's a tale that must be told.

In the beginning was the word. And the word was "literally." The word meant "exactly as written," because at the time English took the word in the English language was experiencing a boom in literacy among its speakers. Along with this boom in literacy came a new respect for the written word. The written word was prior to the advent of print (and the literacy boom it began) a potentially frightening thing to many people. The power of literacy, of the letter, was not a thing to be trifled with.

Advertisement

To relate something "literally," then meant to relate it exactly as it was written. The power of the letter must be respected, for the written word was binding in its power. The illiterate could be and at times were tricked by the presence of writing, presented as official. Such literacy scams were perpetrated against the literate and illiterate alike; just because one was literate in English did not mean one was literate in Latin, Norman French, or another language.

After the innovation of print, it was harder to swindle people in this way. More and more people had some degree of literacy, and the proliferation of the written word did much to demystify it. The letter did not literally bind someone to an agreement so easily anymore.

In the beginning, however, there were also these things called rhetorical devices. Hyperbole (overstatement or exaggeration for emphasis) has been employed in English for over a millennium. In the Dream of the Rood, for instance, when Christ's body is left in his tomb after the crucifixion the poem describes him: "Reste he ðær mæte weorode" (He rested there with a small army). Of course, Christ is alone. The hyperbole of the small army serves to figuratively emphasize how Christ is completely alone.

Advertisement

Hyperbole takes things to the extreme in order to emphasize precisely what the literal sense does not. As an emphatic device, it's popular and clear in meaning. "My mother/wife/husband/father will kill me if they find out." (They'll be really angry at me.) "You'll catch your death out there." (You'll get sick.) Pretty much any fishing story. (The fish was big.) "He literally flipped his lid when I told him we were going to be parents." (He went absolutely bonkers.) (Literally serves as the intensifier here, like really and with exactly the same sort of movement away from the word's original meaning, but even more emphatic.)

No more than a century and a half after the word "literally" entered the English language, it became subject to the same rhetorical uses as any other word.

So, to those with a hate-on for the use of "literally" in a figurative, hyperbolic sense I hate to break it to you, but "literally" isn't special. It's a word. Words get used in rhetorical devices all the time. And as it turns out they don't really get hurt by it because they aren't alive. Who knew?

Advertisement

More to the point, however, is the fact that English is a language. While Spanish has the Real Academia and the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, German the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, Basque the Euskaltzaindia, Hindi the Central Hindi Directorate, Ladino the Autoridad Nasional del Ladino, Indonesian the Badan Pengembangan dan Pembinaan Bahasa, Afrikaans Die Taalkommissie, Akan the Akan Orthography Committee, and many other languages have institutes or academies for the regulation of their language, English does not.

The lack of an English academy was lamented by Jonathan Swift, who notes in his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue the damages wrought in the absence of such an adjudicating body:

There is another Sett of Men who have contributed very much to the spoiling of the English Tongue; I mean the Poets, from the Time of the Restoration. These Gentlemen, although they could not be insensible how much our Language was already overstocked with Monosyllables; yet, to save Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure: They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable: And their Taste in time became so depraved, that what was a first a Poetical Licence, not to be justified, they made their Choice, alledging, that the Words pronounced at length, sounded faint and languid. This was a Pretence to take up the same Custom in Prose; so that most of the Books we see now a-days, are full of those Manglings and Abbreviations. Instances of this Abuse are innumerable: What does Your Lordship think of the Words, Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others, every where to be met in Prose as well as Verse? Where, by leaving out a Vowel to save a Syllable, we form so jarring a Sound, and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondred how it could ever obtain.

Advertisement

Swift, it should be noted, was a great satirist as well as one of the poets he charges with abbreviating so barbarously (cf. "The Lady's Dressing Room"). It should also be noted that if, contrary to received opinion on this proposal, Swift were speaking satirically here, he would certainly hate how such jarring sounds have obtained (or should I say obtain'd?) within our speech. At least he'd be proud that we have removed them from our spellings, as they help preserve our etymology.

The English language is unregulated. It has no academy to declare a standard - much to the displeasure of people like Swift (or those he lampooned, were he satirical). The closest English does have to such a governing body is the Oxford English Dictionary, which continually adds words and definitions as the language grows over time, aiming to be as comprehensive as possible a description of English as it is used.

That the OED operates on the basis of describing the language as it is used, rather than prescribing the language that should be used, is the basis of much angst for many self-styled grammarians. People flipped out when they found out the OED added words like "twerk" or "lol." People almost certainly hated several of 1997's additions, which included "adultescent," "bigorexia," and "girl power."

Advertisement

It's almost as if there's still a fear of the book, that if the OED adds the word one will be magically compelled to utter it. Suddenly compelled to speak of bigorexic adultescents loling and twerking their way to girl power, you then have to retreat home to curl up and die from shame. The addition of the word to a dictionary is seen as adding the word an air of legitimacy, as if the word became real only upon inclusion in the dictionary.

Not so. Turns out, dictionaries are a post-script invention. Words don't become real because they got put in the dictionary. Dictionaries become real because there are words to comprise them. A dictionary is a construct of a social construct, a construct twice constructed, even more artificial than the language it purports to contain.

It's a philosophical difference, really, between the creators and maintainers of the dictionaries who see it as their role to document the English language for the sake of posterity and those who use the dictionary as a literal literary weapon to argue that nonstandard (or nonincluded) usage be stamped out. It's the difference between the grammarians who describe the language and those who want the dictionary to give them the language and freeze it in place.

Advertisement

To those losing it over the inclusion of a figurative meaning for "literally" in the dictionary, I think you'll feel better when you look elsewhere in your dictionaries and see other figurative meanings. When you take an English class and learn about rhetorical devices like litotes and hyperbole (not to mention analepsis, anadiplosis, and anastrophe). When you look online and encounter new words being coined all the time. When you stop literally sucking the dictionary's literal dick because it's the literal dictionary and literally anything outside the literal dictionary literally doesn't count.