Definition of 'Literally' Sparks a Figurative Tempest
The Web figuratively exploded this week with an uproar over the sudden realization that dictionaries acknowledge the figurative use of literally.
The figurative tidal wave of vitriol and subsequent calls for calm moved quickly from Reddit to Twitter to the language blogs to CNN. If you were literally under a rock all week, my apologies. Here is what you missed.
The maelstrom (I’m being figurative here) started on Reddit and soon jumped to Twitter, thanks to a tweet from @Magnus72, who, some might say ironically (in the literal sense), is a Swede living in Texas.
On Monday, @Magnus72 tweeted: “We did it guys! We killed English!” with a link to a screen grab from a Google search for “define literally.” The result gives two senses for the word, the second being: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.”
That garnered literally 4,851 retweets as of this morning.
“Like everything on the Internet these days, all the credit goes to Reddit,” he said in an email. “I was bored in traffic, saw it, tweaked the wording for Twitter and posted it, not giving it a second thought. Imagine my shock a few hours later when I looked at my phone.”
MediaBistro picked up on the controversy, and The Guardian’s Martha Gill got in on the act on Tuesday, writing a blog entry with the provocative headline, “Have we literally broken the English language?” That blog had 1,383 comments this morning. Literally.
Gill’s blog referred to a March 6 blog by Samantha Rollins for The Week which surveyed several dictionaries and their treatment of the word.
Language experts tweeted and blogged, reminding us that dictionaries just reflect the way we speak and most dictionaries point out the usage issues involved with the figurative literally. Tom Chivers of The Telegraph also wrote about literally on Tuesday, saying the two senses can coexist peacefully. His middle-ground approach garnered a mere 219 comments.
On Wednesday, The Daily Mail shifted the debate from Google to the Oxford English Dictionary, with the improbable subhead: “Definition added in September 2011 edition, but unnoticed until this week.” (The OED added a full section with citations in 2011, but the second edition in 1989 noted the nonliteral sense.)
You can check out more stories from the international uproar over literally with a Google News search of the word.
But the debate may have run its course by midmorning today, when Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper tweeted: “Ladies and gentleman, cats of the Internet: ‘Literally’ is no longer the top dictionary lookup.”