Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Li-ter-a-ley

Remember that post long ago when I commented on my incorrect usage of the word "literally", using it to emphasize, instead of to state the truth? (And in case you didn't read that post, basically all I'm saying is that you can never be "literally dying from hunger". Because, if you were, you'd be dead.) And I'm one of those polite grammar police patrol people (Ha. I sound like Pip from Mr.Popper's Penguins. Too many p's.), which means I am 100 percent against using literally for emphasis. But look at what just arrived in my inbox (credit to mental_floss.)

Language evolves all the time, but it's rare that a modified dictionary definition can pull the rug out from beneath your feet like the recent decision to let "literally" mean "figuratively" has. For years -- centuries, in fact, since about 1769 -- casual English users have used the word for emphasis, rather than to state actual truth. Sticklers have long struggled against claims that it is literally a thousand degrees outside or that someone's head literally exploded in anger, but they've fought a losing battle.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the gatekeeper of accepted linguistic changes, has succumbed
 
to the onslaught of the not-so-literal. According to their decree, "literally" can acceptably be used to punctuate a statement that is not literally (in the traditional sense) true. Cambridge Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster have since adopted the informal definition as well. 
In response to backlash, senior editor Fiona McPherson cites the OED's mission to reflect language as it is commonly used. The people have spoken, and dictionary editors are just following in their wake. 

I'm imagining myself on a stage, telling this story. And now, as I finish, there is a chorus of OOH, BUURNNN from the audience. Why, Oxford, must you succumb to these foolish people and their foolish ways of saying foolish things?