5 min read
Next in trending

Literally Indefensible

Your protestations about “literally” are literally wrong

Literally Indefensible

Your protestations about “literally” are literally wrong


“Have we literally broken the English language?” asks Martha Gill in The Guardian today. The problem, such as it is, seems to be that the definition of “literally” has been updated in some dictionaries. “This might be the most unforgivable thing dictionaries have ever done,” says Samantha Rollins, anthropomorphizing bound stacks of paper, echoing the sentiments of literally 50% of Twitter.

Well, let’s see about that.


It’s literally not “official”

Dictionaries do not dictate language usage, they describe it. When a dictionary adds a new word or definition to its pages, it’s because the lexicographers—those responsible for compiling dictionaries—observed it in “general use.” That is to say, a lot of people were using it that way.

You made it official, not the dictionary.

It’s literally been used that way since the 17th century

It’s not as though the lexicographers have made a mistake.

I remember seeing Mrs. Miller after one of those dreadful nights, when we had been literally rocked in our bed

Do you think anybody’s bed physically rocked in the wind in Jane Austen’s Sanditon (1817)?

But there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed…

Am I really expected to believe that Jay Gatsby becomes a source of light in The Great Gatsby (1925)?

A fun thing to do is to search the works of well-known authors for so-called “wrong” use of language and see how many times they broke the rules. By this logic, Jane Austen was a horrible writer. So was Charles Dickens. And holy shit, have you ever read Dawkins? Can’t use “literally” correctly to save his life. Horrible, horrible writer.

Seriously, people have literally complained about this for over 100 years

Here’s what Ambrose Bierce wrote about “literally” in Write It Right, a precursor to The Devil’s Dictionary, old enough to be in the public domain:

It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

H.W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern Usage, published first in 1926:

We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression “not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking”, we do not hesitate to insert the very word we ought to be at pains to repudiate

There is literally a name for this

Linguist Arnold Zwicky calls it the Recency Illusion:

In any case, we have here another instance of the Recency Illusion, the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent. This is a selective attention effect. Your impressions are simply not to be trusted; you have to check the facts. Again and again — retro not, double is, speaker-oriented hopefully, split infinitives, etc. — the phenomena turn out to have been around, with some frequency, for very much longer than you think. It’s not just Kids These Days.

The truth of this, demonstrated above, is immediately clear.

You literally can not hold yourself to this standard

One of the most fascinating aspects of the web is how people that use social media do not ever stop talking about their least favorite words or sentence constructions. (They call themselves grammar nazis, despite the nature of their complaints not being the least bit grammatical.) You have probably done this before. If you’re reading this, you may even have informed as many as millions of people of your preference regarding the word “literally” in recent days.

What makes this fascinating is not that you think anybody cares but that you are almost certainly breaking your own rules.

Osborne can afford a nice burger? — wow, it’s like this man literally is Chancellor of the Exchequer or something

Wow, Martha Gill. Perhaps we truly have broken the English language, but you aren’t helping.

@jamiewiebe haha literally just got the emergency text message.

Ok, Samantha, you got the meaning right, but this usage is still unquestionably indefensible.

And, guys? What about “seriously”?

Who runs this twitter account seriously. RT @HuffingtonPost: You won’t believe what 100 teens got suspended for on the first day of school

Your use of ”seriously” here reminds me of that time you said this kind of usage was indefensible, Samantha.

Making decisions for my future is actually kind of harrowing.

I suspect Samantha may have meant “literally” when she said “actually” here.

And you know what, we could do this forever. Everybody has their favorite pet peeve when it comes to using words wrong.

In essence, what we are advocating for is ‘equal pay for equal work’ irregardless of ones gender…ANC cares

Irregardless isn’t a word!

“@MrCJohnson10: Dick can change females in very unique ways 😒”

The claim is scientifically sound but VERY UNIQUE? IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?

Soooo sitting in the bank parking lot cause Alex needs to think for a few minutes to remember her PIN number

Oh come on!

It’s literally not even the only word with opposing meanings

They’re called contranyms.

bound: heading toward somewhere/restricted or confined to a specified place
cleave: to adhere firmly/to divide by or as if by a cutting blow
scan: to examine by point-by-point observation/to glance from point to point often hastily

It’s literally not even the only word with a definition you could argue is “wrong”

Words change their meanings all the time. Even Buzzfeed readers know that. Angels used to be messengers, awful used to mean “inspiring wonder,” brave used to mean “showy or gaudy,” and so on. Literally ad infinitum. And have you read Shakespeare? That idiot thought calling somebody a “ho” was a way to greet them. Even God can’t get it right: many words in the Bible could be confusing to the contemporary reader.

Pick a word. Any word. Now look up its etymological history. Chances are, it used to mean something quite different. Language changes, at times quite fast.

You are literally on the wrong side of history if you try to fight this.