There has been quite a furor in the English-loving community over the course of the past few months. In fact, one might say that it has people literally about to explode.
Of course, no one is truly about to have a chemical reaction that will cause them to erupt into tiny pieces of flesh–that would just be silly. This is exactly the point I wish to make.
All year, English dictionaries, taking their cue from the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary, have begun to change the definition of the word “literally.” Yes, it’s the day that millions of Twitter junkies and amateur bloggers have been waiting for since they first learned what a syllable was (If they did indeed learn such a thing).
So what is this new definition you ask? Well, according to the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary, “literally” now means, in addition to its original definition, “Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense.”
What this literally means (and I do mean that in the originally intended way) is that the word in question now carries the same meaning as words like “virtually” and “figuratively.” However, don’t even think of refuting it. The Oxford English Dictionary is essentially the standard for the English language. This is law now.
Just as the word “jump” means to propel oneself from a surface with one’s feet, “literally” now means “virtually.” Now, this would be no issue if the original definition of “literally” were not entirely at odds with this new one.
Indeed, the very same dictionary defines the word “literal” as meaning “Of, relating to, or designating the primary, original, or etymological sense of a word, or the exact sense expressed by the actual wording of a phrase or passage, as distinguished from any extended sense, metaphorical meaning, or underlying significance.”
So, as it stands, “literally” means two totally contradictory things. For example, if I say that the sky is literally falling, I can, with equal validity in both cases, be interpreted as having said that the atmosphere is forming chunks of solid matter and is crashing onto the planet as well as having said that it happens to be raining with extreme intensity. This is not the difference between sweet potato and yam; these are two fundamentally different meanings.
Do you see the problem?
Of course, the counter-argument is that context clues will allow a reader or listener to make sense of what a speaker means when he or she uses the word. To counter that counter-argument, I must point out that if I say something like “My mother is literally dying”, one might assume that I mean she has a terminal illness when, in fact, she is actually in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Or, one might say that the new definition of literally is just a product of artistic minds creating new forms of a word through colloquial usage. After all, even Mark Twain used “literally” in this way. Well, you would be correct, so now let’s propose that the Oxford English Dictionary change “your” to officially mean “you are”; this is the exact same debate.
Frequency of use does not a definition make.
What this boils down to is the degradation of the richness of the English language. Words have meanings, and while some may see this as rigid legalism, it actually allows for greater nuance of linguistic expression. Even synonyms like “smile” and “grin” have slightly different meanings in practical use. By combining the definitions of several words, we are effectively cheapening the value of our language via George Orwell’s “1984.”
I can literally see thousands of problems with that.