As a self-professed language nut, I was literally disheartened last week to learn something: According to some sources these days, “literally” now means “not literally.”
Granted, the decree came from Google, which is second perhaps only to Wikipedia in its group-sourced, populist viewpoint of what’s right and what’s wrong. But the bottom line is that the people who, in the past few years, have confused the terms “literally” and “figuratively” have now gotten an unfortunate affirmation.
We’ve all heard it: “I was so embarrassed that I literally died!”
I can’t even say it without imagining an annoying teenage voice, kind of a cross between the Valley girls of my teenage years and the older sister on the animated program “Phineas and Ferb.”
When I hear it, I sometimes point out that, for a dead person, the speaker is still remarkably lively. Usually the response to that involves the rolling of eyes.
But last week, Google announced that there was a new, secondary definition of “literally.” In addition to meaning “in a literal manner of sense; exactly,” it is also now “used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”
Yes, you read that right: “literally” also means “not literally.” I guess it’s a little bit like “flammable” and “inflammable” meaning the same thing (except that there are actual etymological reasons that both of those words have the same definition, but I won’t go into that here).
Now, I’ve studied language enough—both in classrooms and in my spare time—to know that English is a living language and, as such, it is constantly changing. The only languages that don’t change are dead languages, like Latin. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.
That’s what has led so many of us to not understand (or care about) the difference between “your” and “you’re,” or “there,” “their” and “they’re.” Aurally, they sound the same, so for an American public that cares less and less about the written word each year, the variation is negligible at best.
And to be brutally honest, this didn’t start with “literally.” It’s been going on for years. There are almost too many examples of idioms that have been twisted by, for want of a better word, idiots.
How often do we hear someone “could care less” when they really mean they couldn’t care less?
Or think for a moment about “head over heels.” I spend pretty much all of my waking hours head over heels, with my middle somewhere in the middle.
And it’s more obscure, but once upon a time, the word “factoid” referred to something that sounded like a fact and had been repeated so many times it was accepted as truth. These days, it just means it’s a small, trivial or insignificant fact.
These changes have been going on for centuries, in fact. The English of Shakespeare is very different from the English of Stephen King, for example. And I remember from my classes on language history that writer Ambrose Bierce always refused to describe anything as “dilapidated” unless it was made of stone—because the Latin root of the word, “lapis,” referred specifically to stone.
All that is just a roundabout way of saying that I understand that the language is changing, due to a variety of circumstances ranging from the aforementioned focus on the verbal rather than the written to the fact that much of what we do write is in the form of text-speak, where “you” becomes “u,” “before” turns into “b4,” “thanks” miraculously shrinks to “thx” and “OK” saves an entire keystroke by becoming just “K.”
I understand that it’s happening and there’s little I and my language geeks can do about it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
And I mean that literally.
By Eric Copeland • email@example.com